Session to the Rescue: How Craft Beer Can Shrink to Greatness

Despite being a massive beer nerd, I'm very much a lightweight, which makes me a natural fan of session beers (those at about 4.5% ABV or lower, though the definition has some flex in it).  I sometimes struggle to find lighter beers on bar tap lists, which I can understand, to an extent: there's definitely a market for big, unique beers, and a beer bar wants to have the kind of edgy things that draw a crowd.  What surprises me, though, is that bars and breweries don't seem to be seeing the major economic upside to offering more session beers.

This is all the more relevant in the context of last week's article: there is currently more beer being produced per drinker than ever before, and that market is probably shrinking even as production and the number of producers increases.  

Session beer to the rescue!  And it's good for everyone - brewers, bar owners, and beer drinkers.

Same Alcohol, More Product, Better Beer, More Money

I have a sack of grain.  That grain contains a fixed amount of starch, which produces a fixed amount of sugar, which is fermented into a fixed amount of alcohol.  If I make a 9% Tripel or Double IPA with it, I get some number of pints out of that sack.  If I make a 4.5% Belgian Blonde or Session IPA, I get twice that number of pints out of the same sack.  

Bought a beer lately?  I'm assuming so (and if not, PLEASE comment below and tell me why you read Beer Simple if you haven't ordered a beer lately!).  If you have, you might notice that you pay about as much for that 4.7% Kolsch as you do for the 7% IPA.  If you're a brewer, why wouldn't you make more of the cheaper beer?  The profit margin is almost certainly higher.  Lower ABVs also mean less sweetness to balance and higher hop utilization and easier-to-spot hops flavor and aroma, which means you're saving on hops in two different ways, too.  

Then there's the idea that you can sell a customer more than one.  I can drink a couple-three pints of English Bitter and still carry on a conversation about how much Arsenal sucks (sorry - English Premiere League season starts up this weekend - #COYS).  If I drink a pint of a certain Belgian Tripel (terrific beer) I feel like what I assume it feels like when you smoke too much peyote.  

Session beers are also a bit easier to brew.  As a practical matter, alcohol creates toxicity, and yeast don't actually like it that much.  As ABV increases, the challenge of brewing that beer goes up, as yeast tend to produce more off-flavors when they're pissed off.  Skilled brewers can still do it, of course, but it creates a higher degree-of-difficulty.  That's not to say session beers are a breeze to make, but at least that one variable is a little more friendly.

If you can't create more mouths to pour beer into, then a solid way forward is to increase the number of beers going into each mouth.  You can either encourage people to get more drunk, or just spread out that same alcohol across multiple pints.  Even marginal reductions in ABV would yield significant savings and increase sales.

Over the Bar, Not Under It

I don't own a bar, but if I did I think I know what my major concern would be: drunks.  I mean, you're selling alcohol, and when people drink they sometimes get drunk, and when they get drunk they sometimes fight, puke, or talk incessantly about Game of Thrones - and who wants that?

Increasing the availability of session beer means it's a product that you can not only sell more of (see above), but also that consumers can better dial-in their level of intoxication and lowers the probability of someone going overboard faster than they realize, thanks to that 12% barrel-aged Quad.

Wouldn't you rather send more beer over the bar than clean up the folks laying under it?  Fewer rowdy drunks (or more less-rowdy not-quite-drunks, to be accurate) also means a better environment, and more patrons, and more sales.  

Easy Does It

This is good for beer drinkers, too.  Lower ABV per beer probably means less alcohol consumed overall.  I assume that most of us order a more-or-less stable number of beers, dictated by the circumstance.  Out to dinner, Happy Hour, on a date, out with friends, picnic at the beer garden, and any number of other set-piece beer drinking situations tend to yield a certain number of pints ordered.  

More session beer might mean you add one to that tally, but you won't make up all of the alcohol unless you're drinking a lot more pints, and less alcohol is a good thing, health-wise.

I'm no physician (though I am a doctor...of the mind), but it's my understanding that alcohol can have some negative health impacts, which is why we should try to consume it in moderation.  One thing I definitely know, though, is that alcohol = calories, and lower ABV means fewer calories, other factors in the beer recipe being equal.  

Order more session beer.  Fewer calories, fewer hangovers, fewer long-term health risks (I think).  

Everybody Wins

This is one of those situations where everyone wins.  Yes, some beers use alcohol to great effect as a flavor, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that anyone is really noticing the difference between a 6% and 5% IPA.   

Brewers can save money in production.  Bars can increase profit margins.  And we consumers can drink more beer and less alcohol and fewer calories.  And Craft Beer as a phenomenon can buy itself some more time to figure out how this is all going to shake out.

Session to the rescue!

Keep it simple.

JJW


Sunset on the Beer Savanna: More Beer, Fewer Mouths

How much beer is too much beer?  I don’t know (and I don’t think anyone does), but I can confidently state that it’s at least possible that we’re approaching that point when it comes to craft beer.  I know it seemed like there could never be too much craft beer.  Every new brewery on the tap list was a joy to see, and we could simply enjoy this new beer wonderland we were living in.  A huge and diverse Beer Savanna was ours to relish.  How could we ever feel crowded on it?

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series about the proliferation of craft breweries.  I want to thank you for reading this far, from the plea to stop opening new craft breweries, through last week’s discussion of the elbow-bumping that’s changing the beer and bar scene’s collegial attitudes, and now to this week, where we’re tackling a question that usually comes to me as an objection when I raise this issue.  The objection looks like this:

“We had thousands of breweries before Prohibition, and we have only a little more than that now.  But our population is three times what it was then – so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that “number of breweries” isn’t the right metric.  The right metric is production per capita, especially when we factor in overall rates of alcohol consumption, and consumption of beer, particularly.

If we want to know if a “crunch” is coming in the craft beer world, we need to assess how much beer we’re making per person, and how much beer those persons are drinking (or could be drinking, if we market well).  Bottom line up-front: it's more than ever, for a smaller relative audience.

Comparing Points in Brewing Time

Pre-prohibition, we had a lot of breweries.  What we didn’t have were massive production breweries.  You had lots of local and super-local breweries, but not many big-time regional breweries and few real “national” breweries.

Today, we have a lot of breweries.  Most craft breweries are locals, as in the heady days of 1919.  But in addition we have regional craft and non-craft breweries, and of course we also have the mega-breweries of our macro friends. 

So, even with the same number of breweries, we can’t say that the number of breweries compared to the number of people gives us a good sense of whether we’re overproducing.  Let’s go to my preferred metric: production per person (PPP), measured by the ratio of barrels produced (or in the market) to population.

In 1919, the year before Prohibition, the US had a population of 105 million.  It also had a little more than 1,000 breweries, down from a peak of about 4,000 in the late 19th c. (Brewers Association “Historic Number of Breweries,” Beer Advocate “History of Beer in the US”).  This contraction was due in large part to improvements in refrigeration, allowing for and, indeed, leading to some brewery consolidation.  In that year, US beer production was approximately 68 million barrels (Beer Institute – Statistics).  That leads to a PPP value of 0.64 (barrels per person).

Fast forward to today.  True, our population is larger – approximately 320 million (2016).  Production, however, has increased to 216 million barrels, which means that our PPP measure for 2016 is 0.67, which slightly exceeds our pre-Prohibition number.  And as we know, the number of breweries opening each year is growing, and existing breweries are increasing their capacity.  Production is growing faster than population growth, and faster than any fall-off in macro beer consumption (in case anyone was going to claim that craft was simply taking up the slack being lost by macro beer).  And, as one final objection head-off response, “what about exported beer?”  The US Department of Commerce report for 2016 shows that the US imports more than six times as much beer as it exports (roughly 33 million barrels imported, against 5 million exported).  Factoring in total “beer in the market,” then, we add a net 28 million barrels and the PPP ratio rises to 0.76.

I don’t know how much beer is too much.  I do know that, per capita, we’re looking at more of it in our market than ever.

More Beer – Fewer Mouths

We now have, on average, an extra beer in every six-pack as a percentage of beer-to-population, as shown by the PPP measure (0.64 in 1919, 0.76 today).  If the beer-buying public has grown, though, then that may not really matter.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. 

Yes, the growing popularity of craft beer has led some who previously shied away from beer to jump back in.  That rapid, double-digit growth has slowed, though, and at an inopportune time: more than 1,000 new breweries are firing up their kettles this year alone. 

From the high-altitude demographic perspective, beer is in a bit of a hole.  It’s looking down the barrel of a bad population pyramid, given the preferences of each demographic group vis-à-vis its alcohol preferences.

When asked by Gallup their first-choice preference for alcoholic beverages, about 70% of people 50 and older chose beer.  Twenty years ago, that was also true of those age 18-29.  Today, though, that number (while still at about 70% for older drinkers) has dropped by thirty points among younger drinkersFewer than half of younger drinkers are choosing beer (around 40%).  That drop has hopefully hit its floor (with a slight increase last year), but a dramatic recovery to the 70s seems unlikely.

Then there’s this: fewer Americans are drinking alcohol at all.  The percent that are at least “occasional” drinkers has dropped from a high of 71% in 1978 to 64% in 2014 (the last year available in Gallup’s time-series data).  The difference, again, has a significant age-related component: the drop is nearly entirely accounted for in the younger demographic groups, with those 50+ showing consistent drinking habits.

The short version, then, is that we have a grayer, drunker population than we used to.  Given the size of that group – baby boomers – we have something of a buffer in terms of consumption.  However, that group is going to start undergoing what we politely term “generational replacement” – it’s going to start dying.  When it does, who will pick up the stein and carry on?

I Don’t Know

I don’t know how much is too much.  Maybe we can carry on like this for a while yet.  Maybe beer – especially craft beer – will keep finding new customers and bringing them over to its side.  Maybe existing beer drinkers will happily continue paying a growing premium for “good” beer, keeping profits high and smaller, local breweries solvent despite declining unit sales and static (or shrinking) markets.  Maybe we’ll enter a period of correction where breweries will sort themselves out, consolidate, and transition to a more-sustainable model.

Maybe not.

I mean it, though: I don’t know.  I’m not claiming that we’ve hit a saturation point for craft beer.  I do know this, though: there’s more beer out there that I want to drink than I can in any given year.  There are entire breweries that I’ve never or only intermittently tried, even when they’re fairly local. 

I’m sure that beer observers have said this very thing once a week for years, but it genuinely feels to me like we’ve reached a tipping point. 

A Train Leaves San Diego at 55 MPH…

To bring home and synthesize the parts of this argument from these three pieces:

·      We have an ever-expanding craft beer community that is populated, in significant part, by brewers of dubious qualification creating a product of dubious quality

·      As the brewing environment begins to “fill in” its negative space, breweries and bars are going to see an erosion of the amity and cooperative spirit that many think of as being intrinsic to craft beer, thanks to good old-fashioned competition

·      As the beer train hurtles down the tracks, there’s a demographic train humming up the same track in the opposite direction

Those trains may be further apart than I think.  It’s possible they’re not actually headed for a collision, and the market will rationalize rather than convulse.  I suppose it’s also possible that the questions about craft beer quality are both overstated and that breweries will mature and improve, proving this to be just a temporary blip caused by a sudden influx of new players coming into the market.

I don’t buy that, though.  I think that brewery investors should start looking for outs.  I think that brewery employees should start thinking about other industries that can use their hard-earned skills.

I wonder if we have forgotten that the free market is a Darwinian place; there was so much room out there on the beer savanna for craft breweries to romp and play, with few predators in sight and hops fields as far as the eye could see and rivers of wort pouring, seemingly endlessly, to the horizon.  Who wants to think about a time when we’ll have to fight it out for resources, customers, and our own survival?  Who wants to ask if that day is soon to come?  Who wants to ask if it’s already here?

Now, though, the free market hyenas may well be at the door.  I don’t know what will happen next, but if nature is any guide, this may get messy.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Bar Brawl: Tap Rooms, Brewpubs, and the Coming Clash of Craft

Craft brewers come across as a surprisingly cooperative lot.  Stories abound in and around the industry of breweries working collaboratively, sharing hard-to-find ingredients, even providing start-up loans to new breweries (which seems a little bonkers, from a capitalist perspective).  Likewise, having known my share of craft beer bar owners and operators, you'll often see close relationships between breweries (not just distributors) and the bars that stock their products.

Call me cynical, but it seems to me like the camaraderie is starting to wear a little thin, and for a very simple reason: markets evolve, the negative space is starting to fill in to a significant degree, and changes in the law are incentivizing different behaviors.  Big breweries, craft breweries, and bars are all starting to bump into each other, and there are only so many customers out there.

We may be in a Prisoner's Dilemma situation, too.  It's entirely possible that collaboration and cooperation could continue to be viable avenues for success among craft brewers, but that individual defections will limit the probability of it.

For sure, though, it's a dynamic situation.

Brewpubs, Taprooms, Beer Bars, Oh My...

Take in, if you will, this mind-blowing statistic: 60% of new restaurants close within their first three years, but for brewpubs that number drops to 46%...over 35 years.  It isn't hard to understand why.  Brewing and selling on the same premises creates incredible cost savings (no packaging, no delivery) and you're selling to a basically captive audience (once they're in the door, they're buying your beer).

"So what?," you might ask.  "There aren't huge new chains of brewpubs in the market."  That's true.  If you look at the Brewers Association's statistics on brewery openings, the ratio of brewpubs to microbreweries/regional breweries hasn't increased.  However, recent changes in state laws and market approaches have seen production breweries opening tap rooms, or tasting rooms, or sales locations that are brewpubs in all but name.  They're pouring pints, filling growlers, and even the ones that don't serve food often bring in food trucks or cut deals with local delivery restaurants.  They're brewpubs in all but name (and sometimes in name, too).  This creates tensions between breweries, distributors, and craft beer bars, and we're already seeing pushback.  

Then there's the actual incentivizing of brewery establishment.  Cost of a basic commercial brewing system has come down dramatically; the push to service the equipment demands of more-radical homebrewers has blurred the line, and a functioning professional brewery now might have a smaller system than a particularly-geeky homebrew club (mine, the Stoney Creek Homebrewers, owns and operates what is essentially a 2bbl system.  I'm pretty sure we've accidentally created the 25th-largest brewery in the state).  Moreover, in many states (I'd say most, but had trouble verifying cost in all states) a brewery license is significantly cheaper than most liquor licenses, sometimes dramatically so (in PA a brewery license can be had for $1,425, whereas liquor licenses sell at auctions for anywhere from $5,000 to $400,000), and once brewing, you can often sell directly.

Add that all together and you create unavoidable conflict.

"Split Up!"

Then there's the fact that this is all happening at a time when it makes perfect sense to split up and "go local" as a survival strategy.

For years, craft brewers could afford to cooperate because they weren't actually competing with each other: they were competing with macro breweries and carving out chunks of their market share (small chunks as a percentage of what the big breweries sold, but of sufficient size to sustain and grow the micros).  One successful microbrewery buoyed the reputation of craft beer, thereby helping the others, so why not help out if you're a "competing" brewery?  Everybody wins.

Once "big beer" started to sit up, take notice, and fight back, the calculus changed.

Macros start buying up craft breweries, driving down the price of craft beer and directly challenging the business model of the remaining craft breweries.  The logical response is for craft breweries to turn into the skid and target local communities in lots of locations rather than relying on a traditional centralized production/distribution model.  Big beer will always be able to undercut price on the shelf, but over the bar a small brewery selling for itself has a relative advantage, especially if they can lean on "drink local" sentiment (which they can).  

This "scatter" effect is a great way to create more targets than big beer can smash, but also puts breweries-with-brewpubs in much more direct competition with each other, and with the bars that were their direct customers.

The Wars to Come?

It's not universally held, but it is commonly speculated, that there's an impending "correction" coming in the craft beer market.  Too many breweries chasing not enough customers with the giants stomping around gobbling up "real" craft breweries and driving down profit margins (plus some quality concerns) will mean a "big crunch" in the craft brewing universe.

Maybe so.  Craft brewing's share of the market is still growing, but that rate of growth has slowed significantly.  Still, it's not realistic to think that we'll ever end up back in the bad old days of huge national breweries and no craft options.

What seems most logical to me is that the small brewpubs will survive - after all, they have that built-in "brewpub advantage" we discussed earlier.  I also tend to think that the larger craft breweries will survive, leveraging their economies of scale to a sufficient degree to remain profitable even in direct competition with the macros.

No, what worries me is what happens to those caught in the middle: the highly-successful but not-quite-national craft breweries.  Where do they go?  Private capital can't be relied on if the market actually starts to contract.  Macros will only buy up so many craft breweries.  Maybe the Victory Brewing Co./Southern Tier "merger" model will be workable for others.  Maybe mid-sized breweries will be able to use brewery-owned brewpubs to float their production operations.

I suspect, though, that what we'll see is that the total number of breweries will remain fairly static, but that some significant number of medium-sized breweries will take the hit for the rest.  

Here's hoping your favorite survives.

Keep it simple.

JJW


For God's Sake, Stop Opening Breweries - The Normals Are Noticing

This isn't for all of you.  Some of you should be opening breweries.  But it's for most of you (and me, for that matter).  For God's sake, stop opening breweries.  You might be OK to ignore this if you live somewhere where there isn't a decent brewery within, say, 25 miles.  And you've worked in an industrial setting (do you even weld, bro?).  And you have extensive brewing experience.  And you have a working knowledge of chemistry and biology.  And you have some experience in marketing and sales.  And/or you're rich or have access to a lot of slack credit.  If you don't check these boxes and you're contemplating a brewery business plan right now, I'm talking to you.

Because lately I keep reading about and/or visiting breweries that fail on these basic, obvious things, and it's starting to piss me off because I'm now having to hear my macro-drinking neighbors tell me that they picked up some local brewery's beers, but didn't like them...and they're 100% right.  This isn't, "oh, they usually drink Coors Lite and can't handle real beer."  It's "oh, that beer legitimately doesn't taste good for a variety of reasons."  You're always going to have differences in taste, but this is actually just poorly-made beer, and believe it or not (my palate-trained friends) while it might be hard to pick out the great from the good in terms of beer, picking out the terrible is pretty easy, and lots of people can do it.

The normals are noticing our quality problems.  We need to get our shit together, and quick, and step one is to stop opening shoddy brewing operations.

You Don't Want To Do This...

I weighed in on this a while back, and noted that I don't really want to open a brewery, and maybe you shouldn't either.  I'm taking that a step further now: this isn't a "maybe" anymore.  You don't want to do this.  And maybe you can't.  And maybe you don't know that.

When I wrote that earlier piece, I was coming at it from the perspective that many people were well-meaning and would simply find that the brewing and non-brewing work involved didn't match up to their expectations.  That they could do the job, but just might not ultimately want to.

I've abandoned that perspective.  I'm now wondering if the people opening these breweries even know what they don't know.  It's not a question of incentive and effort anymore: I'm more and more thinking it's a question of skill and ability and awareness.

I'm sure by now many of you have read this piece in Forbes about a trio of new brewers out in California.  I don't mind that they seem a little douchey ("...when I walked into the bar to meet him I noticed we both wore Lucchese ostrich boots, and we became best buds ever since.”), or that they're riding some serious parental coattails, or that they're self-congratulatory.  

It's that they don't seem to know obvious things about beer and brewing, and are repeating their misconceptions confidently to a writer for a national publication.  Among their pearls of brewing wisdom: 

  • 30 days is actually a long time to lager a beer (Spoiler: IT ISN'T)
  • There aren't any American-owned breweries making...Pilsner
  • Showing commitment means to show up at accounts and shake hands with the people who buy and serve your beer
  • Beers use an "array of different malts and hops" and that, apparently, has something to do with monitoring the beer's temperature?

I hate to pile on, but they're either VERY poorly quoted, or they have no business running a brewery.  Maybe owning one...but, no, I can't even say that.  I've known people who invest in breweries and bring in staff to run them because they lack those skills, but even THOSE people are intimately interested in and rapidly come up-to-speed on the basics of the market they're entering and the products they're producing.  

And I wish this was atypical, but as I've noted before, I'm often shocked at the things brewers don't know.  It's possible I've reached a tipping point where I can name as many less-than-competent brewers/owners than competent.  

Airing Our Dirty Beer

Maybe you live in a good beer desert.  I know this is true for some of our international readers, and surely many within the US despite the 6,000+ licensed breweries in our midst.  

If so, then maybe any craft beer is better than none at all.  

That doesn't seem like the norm, though.  And it's concerning to me that when I look at the batting average of breweries opening here in the Northeast, it's pretty low.  Used to be that when a new brewery opened the only question was whether it would be only-as-good or better than the other craft breweries in the area.  Now I need to wonder whether it's as bad as the worst macro beer, and in addition I now need to question whether they know it's bad and are trying to fix it.  Maybe it's different elsewhere in the country, but my communication with those in other regions suggest it isn't.

So if you're thinking about this, please, don't do it.  And if you've already done it and think to yourself, "wow, I run a brewery!  My beer is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is a crank!," then at least make sure you have a lab, a QC program, and are constantly seeking to improve your product.

As it stands, this used to be something that we'd only need to discuss as a niche community.  But as I said, the outsiders are starting to notice.  Craft beer isn't a fad, but lots of people still think it is, and if you think it's bad news when growth slows, start thinking about what will happen when the fad craft drinkers bail and the market actually contracts.

Out will come the knives.  And I can't guarantee my or your favorite good brewery will survive.  

I beg you: stop opening breweries.  And for the rest of us, start steering your friends and neighbors to the good ones...maybe literally.  Yes.  Drive them to the breweries.  Offer to pick up their beer for them from the distributor.  Print your own redeemable coupons.  Buy entire rounds for the people at the bar, but only if you get to pick what they drink.  

Because they're starting to notice.  And that's not the good thing it once was.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


Why "Beer For Women" Marketing Won't (and Maybe Shouldn't?) Die

Let's get this part out of the way first: women want out of beer what anyone wants out of beer.  Specifically, something that tastes good, offered at a reasonable price, with a modest dose of alcohol.

Yet every few months I have to read about yet another brewery designing and marketing "beer for her."  

Don't get me wrong, there are all kinds of products out there where I can see a clear and obvious value in focusing on gender as a differentiating factor, since biological differences between men and women are real and substantively significant.  Exercise equipment.  Pharmacy products.  Guns. 

But beer?  Not really.  I'm pretty sure that the things anyone enjoys (or doesn't) about beer are more or less gender-neutral.  

That doesn't mean there isn't some logic behind it, though.  Biscuit, my Goldendoodle, does all kinds of stupid things (because she's, you know, a dog) that still make logical sense in her walnut-sized Doodle brain.

I'm not going to bother with the "they're so patronizing" angle here, though, because that's a waste of your time.  I'm sure there are a dozen such pieces posted every week, especially when some new "beer for her" like "Arousa" (real name) hits the market.    No, what I'd like to do is talk through what the repeated attempts to do this actually suggest about beer culture, and whether that's a good or bad thing.

The "Big Tent" Theory

If we're inclined to be generous here, there's a way to look at this not as (merely) a sexist, patronizing marketing gimmick.  After all, it's a reality that men are more than twice as likely to declare that beer is their preferred alcoholic beverage (in the US, at least, and a shrinking global "gender gap" in alcohol consumption doesn't track to increased beer consumption, which suggests that the finding is at least generally true, internationally and in the aggregate as women drink more of something that isn't beer).  That means that there's a demographic target to be exploited to fuel market expansion, if you can find ways to particularly encourage women to buy beer.

That's not a bad thing.  Hell, it's arguably a good thing for a market segment that's watching its growth slow.  

Yes, the methods and approaches seem to be almost caveman-esque in their blunt and un-nuanced approach ("Put it in a champagne glass!" "Pastel colors and ribbons!"), but as I noted to a friend recently, I HAVE to believe that there's some kind of really compelling market research that actually supports this kind of nonsense. Otherwise, it's so patently silly and potentially offensive as to be an obvious no-go.  Again, I'll refer you to the many other such critical pieces for that argument. 

The generous view here is that this is just an attempt to bring more folks into the "beer" tent.  We notice these because they combine ongoing debates about equality/social identity and beer, but they're really just a symptom of beer's broader shotgun approach to selling beer to all under-participating parties.  

Balancing Act

Another theory is that marketers are just responding to a "dude"-heavy culture in craft beer by turning hard into the "chick" skid at the other end of the spectrum.  If selling beer to men seems to work by marketing to the most obvious cliches about what men like (a cavalcade of sexually-suggestive imagery/language peddled by lumberjacks who talk sports), then why not take a stab at wrapping a bottle in marble-patterned plastic, stick it in a pink six-pack, and call it "Let's Go Shopping Session IPA?"  After all, selling other products via "girly" stereotypes seems to be pretty effective.

Offensive?  Probably.  Over-the-top?  Definitely.  Irrational?  No, not really.

After all, it's no less sexist than selling sets of tools with pink handles, yet we don't see massive social media backlash to it.  I'm pretty sure a 16-ounce head on a hammer is 16 ounces whatever color the handle is, just like I'm pretty sure that a good Kolsch is a good Kolsch no matter what kind of bottle you put it in.

From that point of view, then, it seems appropriate-but-selective that we get up in arms over "beer for women" but not "tools for women."  

What they share in common, though, is a perception (and reality) that the space in question has a gender disparity, and therefore a more-direct appeal (even a clunky one) seems logical.

Reason v. Result

Whether these are just the most-visible examples (by virtue of their in-artfulness) and not really representative of beer marketing strategies and/or simply the contrapuntal gender-invert result of a deliberate effort to "hyper-feminize" the granitic masculine approach to beer marketing (at least in terms of what a patriarchal culture sees as stereotypically "feminine"), I can't say - could b both, and of course I could be completely off.

What I am will to assert, though, is that I don't find these efforts illogical.  I think that the two theories posited here provide at least a reasonable rationale for the why and the how of this phenomenon.  

I'm also aggressively agnostic on whether these sex-based approaches are a waste of time or not, whatever we think of their appropriateness.  

On the one hand, beer drinkers I know - whatever their gender - care about what's in the glass more than anything else (except maybe who owns the brewery, but that's a topic for another day).  I don't know any (except in the Alehole-fringe) who buy beer because of its label or name.  

On the other, though, I know for a fact that there are women out there who refuse to drink beer because it's "for men."  It comes up when I offer them a beer, and nothing I say changes them from that perspective.  If seems-to-me-sexist marketing is what gets them out of their traditionalist attitude towards "appropriate role behavior" and into the beer game, am I OK with the ends justifying the means?

I just don't know.  I welcome you thoughts.

Keep it simple.

JJW


A Year of Unique Beer: Halfway Home

Well, we're officially halfway through the Year of Unique Beer, and things are starting to get interesting.  Running tally: 217 beers, plus about 15-20 homebrewed beers (mine and others').

For those who need a refresher, I accepted a fun challenge to drink no "repeat beers" this year.  The rules are pretty simple: if I drink more than six ounces of any beer, that's the only one of that label I get for the year, and I can't just keep drinking small pours of everything indefinitely - that would need to come from a sample-oriented interaction, like a beer festival.

Bottom line up front?  It's been both easier and harder than I expected, and while I haven't had to resort to wine-drinking yet, the pitfalls are starting to get wider and more numerous...

Smooth Sailing

On the one hand, this has been remarkably easy.  With more places than ever carrying craft beer, there's no shortage of good taps out there.  On the list of places where I can get local craft beer are less-likely locations like two local movie theaters, soccer matches, and school receptions.

It's also helped that new breweries keep opening up near me - three so far this year just in my immediate vicinity, and maybe as many as a dozen in the larger metro area.

Even at local brewpubs that I visit regularly, there are always 2-3 seasonal beers, collaborations, and/or differently-"gassed" variations (those count as unique beers if they exist separately in Untappd) to choose from.

And I also have the greatest beer friends in the world: whenever they travel, they haul back singles from their travels for me.  Great stuff.

Choppy Waters

It's not all beer and roses, though.  

I'm still having a tough time, of all places, at home.  My kegs are full, I'm running low on bombers, and I haven't even really hit the busiest of my brewing seasons (fall) yet - I'm starting to get concerned that I'll either need to chop back my brewing or use this as an excuse to buy more kegs!  OK, so maybe that's not ALL bad...

Visiting with friends and family continues to present a challenge.  I just finished my Unique Beer Year Waterloo: almost a week at the New Jersey shore with my extended family.  That trip chewed up all of my existing single reserves, and required trips to two bottle shops to fill out the haul, and at that I only came home with two cans.  Why two bottle shops?  Because one is a local supermarket and their "mix your own six-pack" selections are both narrow and static.  The things you learn in a challenge like this...

Finally, just like there are "crafty" beers (that aren't really), there are "crafty" beer bars.  The beers might be craft, but the bar isn't: it's the same eight craft beers on tap every time.  I've had to start weighing when it's time to pull the trigger on those macros, and as we'll see in the update below, two have now bitten the dust.

Did I Drink That?

As we reach the turnaround, I've just about reached the point where I can no longer rely on my memory to tell me if I've had a beer before.  I had one misfire - ordered a brown ale I thought I'd never heard of, was wrong, and had to give it away and order another - and a few more close calls.  Untappd has become my crutch and my cross.

Two macros are now off the list: PBR and, just this weekend, Yuengling Lager.  I'm treating those macro lagers like gold: they're ubiquitous and might save me in a pinch, so I'm trying to hoard them.  If I make it through the entire year with nary a Bud touching my lips, I'll consider it a victory, but it'll be a victory born of cowardice: I'm not avoiding it on principle, I'm avoiding it because I might need it someday, like a shady relative you can't stand but might need to bail you out of jail so you don't have to call your spouse.

I still maintain, though, that all it takes is to make it to September.  At that point, I'll be able to ride a rising wave of Oktoberfests, pumpkin beers, and Christmas beers right on through to 11:59PM on December 31st.  

What will I drink one minute later to toast in the new year?  Your suggestions are welcome.  

Keep it simple.

JJW


A Matter of Time: Evaluating a New Brewery

Even by "craft beer explosion" standards, there are a lot of new breweries near me.  Forget the ones in the nearby major city: I just mean the ones in my own suburban backyard.  As they open, local beer friends and I invariably stopped in and tried their beers, and as the social media posts began stacking up one of our homebrew club members asked: how do you evaluate a new brewery?

How, indeed?  There's always just tasting the beer, but that's like evaluating the climate of a place by just visiting it on one day.  Maybe that one day isn't typical, or symptomatic of what things are usually like and where they're headed.  My wife, Barbara, and I spent exactly one day in Bergen, Norway.  It was glorious: sun shining, cool breezes, drinking hyper-overpriced Pilsner while sitting on the Bryggen (the historic harbor district, now a retail area and UNESCO World Heritage site) after a wonderful walking tour of the city, including the "oldest street in Norway."  To us, Bergen is sunshine and open-air dining.  Turns out, we just got really lucky: it rains in Bergen 231 days a year, on average (that's worse than Seattle, by a pretty big margin).  

So, long story short (too late): tasting is just one part of the process. Let's make the story longer, though.

Structural Considerations

The first thing you might consider is how many offerings a new brewery has available, and what they are.  You can usually get this information from press releases, the brewery's website, or reviews that might have popped up from soft openings.  

I don't like to see anything more than six beers on offer, to start - maybe eight at the outside.  I know what it takes to start up a brewery (having seen it at close hand on a number of occasions), and a place with a dozen or more beers on in its first couple of months probably hasn't had the time to run them all through test batches, refine recipes and processes, and tune them up.  While every brewery learns by doing, at least in part, jumping in too fast with too many beers is a potential warning sign that they're willing to sell mediocre (or even bad) beer, rather than building slowly and offering high-quality products.

I also like to see signs that you're thinking and/or that your brewery has a focus or personality.  One sign of this not being in evidence was seen at a new brewery I visited a couple of years ago.  They had four core beers (good start!), but they were a Pale Ale (OK), an IPA (a little redundant, but I get it), a coffee porter and a generic medium-strength stout.  It's on those last two that I got my red flag: if you're only making four beers, why those?  Who's going to buy your stout who wouldn't like that coffee porter, and vice versa?  

Anyways, it isn't determinative in any way, but it's something I think about.

First Impressions

Nothing quite like that first taste, though.  There's some luck-of-the-draw here: maybe their best beer is their Pilsner.  If it is, I'll probably hit that before I try the DIPA (just for palate reasons), so I might get a good vibe right off the bat.  If your brewery, though, phones it in on some kind of session Kolsch and it's just OK, then a drinker's first impression might be that you're a little too blah.  Just something to think of for you brewery operators out there!  Don't write off those "crowd pleaser," lighter, low-ABV beers.

As previously noted, I don't like tasters of a beer, and I'm kind of skeptical of flights, so I usually go with a half-pint or better of a couple of their beers in my first visit.  That way I'm getting it as it's initially poured, a little decarbonated and a little warmer as I work my way down the ounces, and then one flat, warm-ish last sip.  I just find it to be a more useful set of perceptions than even a 4-6 ounce short pour, and certainly more so than a one-ounce sip.  

For me, this is just a baseline.  Even my least favorite breweries get more than one visit if they're newly-opened.  But baselines matter.  Take mental notes of what they seem to do well and what needs work (a place I just went to this weekend turned out some great American pale ales but has something really odd going on with their Belgian yeasts/fermentations), and file it away for future reference.

Return of the Beer Geek

After a few weeks, I'll stop in again.  This is primarily to provide a point of comparison: a data point isn't a trend, and two data points isn't something you should hang your analytical hat on, but it's something.  

All I want to see is improvement.  Even a little.  Some of my favorite breweries stumbled out of the gate, but quickly started refining their processes and recipes and you could taste the difference almost immediately.  Breweries that do that will usually, with time, produce killer beer.  Why?  Because those are the breweries that care about feedback and know how to act on it.

I also want to see if they're resolving their focus: is the brand developing in a way that makes sense?  Are they still producing a phone-book-sized list of beers in jack-of-all-styles fashion?  

This initial return trip is usually enough to get a bead on where the brewery's headed.  But just in case...

Beer in the Wild

After this, I'll usually try to find a place's beers on tap somewhere other than the tap house and give them short trials "in the wild."  Believe it or not, sometimes they get better with a little age and/or coming out of a different system.  Just like you shouldn't judge any brewery based on how their beer tastes at any one bar (because that bar might be bad at serving beer), you shouldn't forget that the tap room itself is just one bar!

It also gives you additional data: are they getting better?  Worse?  What's being put on tap out in the market?  Is this just going to be one more on the endless IPA list, or will their cedar-aged Altbier be out there, too?

Last Stop

Somewhere between six months and a year in operation, I'll give any place its last visit before writing it off (assuming it's not coming off well in these evaluations).  Maybe it took a while to learn the system.  Maybe they needed to bring in a lab guy/gal or hire a new brewer, and it took some time to get the new staff up to speed.  Maybe they didn't know how to operate their glycol chilling system at first or a thermometer was mis-calibrated, which made their first beers hot, estery messes.  

Whatever the case, when you're coming up on a year in business, you've had plenty of time to work out the kinks.  I'll give you one last try, and we'll see where we are.  

If there's evidence of improvement, OK, I'll try again in a few months.  If not...

Glutton for Punishment

OK, I know I said that was the last stop, but it really isn't.  Even the worst breweries in my area will get a test drive now and again, even after years of disappointment.  Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I have to believe that bad breweries can't stay in business for years without doing something right.

In those cases, though, I've never been turned around.  Maybe it's just accumulated bias/informational ballast.  Maybe there's a house flavor I just can't get past, like how I love seafood but despise crab in any form.  

Whatever it is, it isn't enough to stop me from giving them another shot.  It's like Charlie Brown and the football.  I just can't help thinking, "maybe this one will be great!"

So, to make a long story long, how do I evaluate a brewery?  Endlessly.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


Is Craft Beer Demanding Too Much of Service Staff?

Maybe it's just bad luck, but I've run into some deeply challenged wait and bar staff lately:  overwhelmed, overconfident, overwrought and/or undereducated about the products they're serving.

I don't expect every front-of-house employee to be able to give me the rundown on how pH is a much less useful concept in evaluating the sourness of a beer than titratable acidity, but many are just running scared from one pint to the next.  I don't especially mind when folks just don't know something - worse is when they try to completely bullshit me.  Describing a Maibock as being "lagered instead of brewed with a bock yeast to lighten it up" is just nonsensical.  It's worse than a shrug, because it's clearly an attempt to sound competent despite the fact that what you've just said makes almost no sense.*

The Deep End

So, who's to blame here?  

You could blame the staff, but honestly, I can't do that.  For one thing, I used to be in that position, and I'm sure I misrepresented my fair share of information, too.  I'm also confident I did so in an attempt to appear knowledgeable about what I was serving, even if I didn't.  If their worst sin is image-protection, I think we can all understand that one.

No, I think you have to put most of this on bar owners and, to a lesser extent, on craft beer culture itself.  One created the deep end, and the other shoved us all into it.

Moving Targets

Let's say you're a well-meaning, beer-loving businessperson and you're opening a bar or restaurant.  As a beer lover (or, maybe, an opportunist who likes the idea of charging $6-7 a pint for beer), you want your bar to have a deep tap list that includes a wide range of craft beers.  You talk to some distributors and breweries, curate your list, and throw open the doors.  What kind of training do you give your staff?  

Answer: it doesn't really matter, even if you approach it seriously.

Let's say your staff learn, by rote, the details of each beer on the list (and let's further assume that that's even possible and you aren't pushing an absurd 60+ tap list).  Within a few short weeks, that list is changing.  Are they re-learning all of the new beers, or are they all just plugging along and trying to use the names of the beers to guide them (good luck with that)?

Your tap list represents a moving target.  And your staff - if you're like most service industry locations - is in a similar fluctuating state, with new people coming in all the time and institutional memory (such as it is) going out. 

A transient staff and a diverse and near-constantly shifting product selection.  What hope is there that you can get a reasonable answer to almost any question about what's on tap?

Nobody Expects It - But They Should

Then there's the Spanish Inquisition that often occurs when beer people hit the bar; nobody expects it, as the boys of Monty Python told us, but they really should.  I mean, first, when you offer a specialized product lineup you have to expect that beer neophytes might be intimidated by this and ask some questions - that's normal, and it's a problem that they might not be getting great answers.

Worse, though, are the beer geeks (and faux beer geeks) who turn the thing into 20 Questions.  A central feature of alehole behavior is the showing off of (real or imagined) esoteric knowledge of beer arcana, and this often lurks in the guise of asking questions of bar staff.  "So, which strain of Brett is in that pale ale?  Because Brett L can be a bit too piquant..."  

Yes, the very existence of craft beer culture creates the a scenario where a deep-dive/forced-drowning situation is virtually unavoidable, whether it be the newest or hippest people to walk up to the bar.

Information to The Rescue?

I know, I know, some of you are already yelling at the computer that we can all just whip out our smart phones and do our own research.  

And others are accusing me of creating a straw man because the tap list will have descriptions, too.

What I'd say to all of you is this: those have both, arguably, become unreliable narrators in the story of Craft Beer.  Ratings sites exist, but many don't offer descriptions of the beers in question - just reviews written by people who may be no more knowledgeable than you and subject to the same face-saving techno-babbly bias.  You can go right to the brewery's website, but the Maibock description above was also direct from the brewery, so that's certainly no guarantee of accuracy.

Then there's this: why should I have to?  

I've mounted this horse before, and I'm honestly not sure there's a clear answer, but if beer is going to be complicated, and style descriptions are going to be so broad as to be meaningless, and seasonal/one-off/collaboration/specialty beers are going to hit us (by popular demand) at a rapid rate, and bars are going to build out Hydra-like tap systems with a fecundity that rabbits would admire and then abdicate the responsibility to hire staff that know what's going on behind them, then...well, we might prepare for some pushback here.

I know that it's my simple-oriented bias showing itself here, but maybe - just maybe - we should start demanding quality over quantity, and not just in the beer, because the experience of drinking it matters, too.

Keep it simple.

JJW

*So here's what's wrong: this sentence draws distinctions without a difference and doesn't make a whole lot of technical sense.  True, there are "traditional "bock yeasts, so you could reasonably say that "this Maibock is different because it's not brewed with a bock yeast."  I wouldn't put it that way, but OK.  To go on, though, and say it is "lagered instead" draws two different fouls.  First, "lagering" is just cold-storing and can apply to any beer, even one brewed with an ale yeast.  Second, if the implication is that a lager yeast was used instead of bock yeast, there's a problem because bock yeast is lager yeast.  Last, lagering doesn't "lighten up" a beer, in any sense of the word.  It wouldn't lighten the color - color would stay the same or even darken, because oxidation is inevitable and oxidation darkens a beer.  It wouldn't lighten the body through continued fermentation, because by that time fermentation is complete.  And it wouldn't lighten flavor because as beers age the malt tends to come more to the fore since other flavors literally drop out of the beer.  So, yeah, we've got problems there.