In Praise of the Pounder: The Perfect Beer Package

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We're lucky enough to live in a beer world that no longer looks down its nose at a beer in a can.  Gone are the days when an amber (or, worse, green) bottle is some kind of nonsensical sign of sophistication.  Maybe someday soon we'll evolve past the idea that a cork has some kind of magical benefit, too.  In the meantime, however, please allow me to propose that the best of all possible beer packages is...

THE POUNDER.

Yes.  The 16-ounce can is the ideal beer package.  And I can prove it.

Keeping the Wolves Outside the Door

When it comes to beer quality, the two great enemies are light and oxygen.  One turns the beer into skunkwater, the other makes it a flaccid, flabby mess of a beer that tastes like something that once knew what a beer was but has since suffered severe head trauma and can now only mutter incoherent words like "biscuit" and "citrus" while shuffling around the glass, chewing cardboard and bumping into itself.  

Cans, generally speaking, solve both of these problems.  Bottles - even dark bottles - still allow in some of the evil UV light that will wreck your beer (assuming it has/had actual hop plant material in it - not all, but most, do).  It might take longer in that brown bottle, but it'll still happen.  And while glass isn't oxygen-permeable, that crown cap with its plastic gasket isn't a perfect seal - as the beer warms and cools, small amounts of air will make it in/out, and so you'll stale more quickly.

But not cans.  A real airtight seal, and no light penetration.  The staling and off-flavor producing wolves stay outside the door.  

If 12 is good, 16 is better

Then there's the actual volume.  Pour that 12 oz. can into a pint glass, and you know what you get?  Answer: not a pint.  It's psychologically unsatisfying.  

Now imagine you have that pounder.  You're pouring, gently, and you get a full, full glass with a slight head - and a little bit leftover in the can, like a kid with a milkshake.  What's better than that?  You get a full beer, and somehow, magically, you also get more beer!  

Also, think of transport.  If I'm carrying a six-pack around, I'm moving six beers, one way or another.  Six 8-oz. pony bottles?  48 ounces.  Six 12-oz. cans?  72 ounces.  Six pounders?  96 ounces, baby.  Now I can share two, or even three, and still feel good about it.

Then there's just how it feels in your hand.  A 12 feels immature, like something you drank back when you were 17 and hiding out in the woods with a six-pack between three of you (which it is, and which you did).  But a pounder feels like a real can of beer - and maybe something you could defend yourself with if accosted by a particularly rowdy Dallas Cowboys fan.  Throw in a dress sock and you've got yourself a legit deadly weapon.

The Odd Insanity of Beer Buyers

There's one more good reason to love the pounder: who came up with pricing strategies on these things?  Whomever it was saw deeper into the fundamental irrationality of humans than I ever will.

It's not an uncommon occurrence for me to see a case of 16s priced at an identical price to a case of 12s in the same store, on the same pallet, of highly similar beers, even from the same brewery.  Now, I can understand that, to an extent, because the per-case pricing has a lot of marketing juju behind it, and if Brewery A wants to sell all of its cases for about the same price, then I get that. 

What I'll never understand, to the day they pry that pounder can of Kostritzer Schwarzbier out of my cold, dead hands is why I also see a beer buyer buying that case of twelve-ounce cans when the 16s are right there.  It's insane.  And I'm not talking about "oh, I want a hefe, and the pounders are IPAs."  No, I mean a case of 12-oz. IPA cans, and a case of 16-oz. IPA cans, sitting right next to each other for the same price, and some jabroni happily whistling his way to the counter with the case of 12s.  

It's 33% more beer, bro.  WTH is the matter with you?

Pound It

Start asking for this, from your favorite breweries.  If they already do it, ask why they don't do it more.  Because until the day we can all drink from self-propelled hovering 10L mini-kegs that follow us from place to place, there will never be a better package for beer.

And don't even get me started on the crowler.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


A Year of Unique Beer: Into the Home Stretch

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Nine months into my Year of Unique Beer challenge, which means three months to go, but all the same I can't help feeling that it'll be an easy coast to the finish line.  

We've entered the Month of the Pumpkin.  All downhill from here.

For those who need a quick recap, I accepted a challenge, this year, to drink no more than one serving of any single beer, which means that the bottle of Victory Prima Pilsner I had on New Years Day was the only one I was allowed for all of 2017.  

Initially, of course, it was pretty easy: lots of beer out there, right?  As the weather got warmer, things started to tighten up, and I saw my first "available everywhere" macro beer go off the list (adios, PBR).  Summer was the hardest, what with the weekends at the beach that might knock off 20 varieties (which I had to supply myself) and bars with limited options on tap (RIP, Sam Adams, Miller, and Yuengling Lager).  

I have now, though, entered the victory lap, for I have come to the time of joy for one in my position.

The OPC Train

I've purchased my ticket for what I've come to call the "OPC Train."  OPC: Oktoberfest, Pumpkin, Christmas.  

From hereon in, the tap lists of the world will be a never-ending rotation of Oktoberfests and Marzens, which will roll right into the pumpkin beer glut that I'm already seeing, and from there it'll be wall-to-wall Christmas and Winter-spiced beers right through to 11:59PM on December 31st, 2017.

What to many is a cause for a groan and a head-shake is to me the sight of salvation.  No more wondering whether I've already had that particular "summer ale" or blonde, no more worrying I'll be stuck on vacation with nothing but Barefoot Chardonnay and a fridge full of Miller Lite.  Hell, I could throw darts at these tap lists and feel confident I'm getting something new!

Call it some kind of bizarro-world pumpkin ale Stockholm Syndrome if you will, but this year, for me, the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg is the best beer aroma I could hope for.

Pride Goeth After the Fall

Having said that, I'm not going to get complacent.  Fall will end, and when it does, a final dangerous beast looms: winter holidays.  What to do with the inevitable parties of the holiday season?  For that, I need something more: cold weather.  Once we get there, I can justify passing on the beer in favor of a glass of Scotch, if push comes to shove.

But I'm going to try to keep the beer thing going.  It's been wonderful to see how many friends and family members have gone out of their way to hold onto unusual beers, haul things back from vacation for me, or reserve one beer out of each case they buy as a gift.  Hopefully the spirit of the seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas will keep the unique beer lines open and flowing.

I can't pretend, though, that it's not starting to wear on me a bit.  My mouth literally waters when I think about what it will be like to say, "I'll have another!" on January 1st.

And how, you might ask, will all of this end?

New Year's Eve with, oh, let's say 7-8 bottles of some special things I've been saving, as well as the rankest, most-ubiquitous macro lagers on the market, will round out the year.  

And then, at 12:01AM, the first of up to 24 Sierra Nevada Celebration IPAs.  Any bets on how many I can get through before the day ends?

Keep it simple.

JJW


"Yes, VIRGINIA, There Is Bad Beer"

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DEAR EDITOR: I am 28 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no such thing as bad beer.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in BEER SIMPLE it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there bad beer?

VIRIGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the optimism of an optimistic age. They do not believe in bad beer except they see a BA label.  They think that nothing can be bad which is local to their little palates. All palates, Virginia, whether they be beer geeks' or normals', are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his palate, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of hops and barley.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is bad beer. It exists as certainly as acid and fusels and oxidation exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its dullest mouthfeel and disappointment. Alas! how unrealistic would be the world in which there was no bad beer. It would be as unlikely as if there were no VIRGINIAS. It would take a childlike faith then, with no criticality, no objectivity to make rational this existence. We should have no credibility, except in ZIP code and neighborhood. The eternal foam with which beer fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in bad beer! You might as well believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch all the mash tuns on Brew Day to catch bad beer, but even if they did not see the pH coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees bad beer, but that is no sign that there is no bad beer. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the draft system and see what makes the bubbles inside, but there is a veil covering the bad beer world which not the strongest Cicerone, nor even the united strength of all the beer judges that ever lived, could tear apart. Only objectivity, palate training, education, social media pressure, polite feedback, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the infernal ugliness and gore beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else so real and abiding.

No bad beer! Damn Ninkasi! it lives, and it lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, it will continue to make sad the heart of adulthood.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The preceding is a parody of an item you might recognize.  Its inspiration was in hearing aleholes constantly exclaiming "the best beer is the one in your hand!" and "there's no such thing as bad beer - it's all personal preference!"  There are lots of things that can be wrong in a beer that have nothing to do with personal, subjective preference.  You might enjoy hot alcohols, rampant goat-crotch funk, ash-tray-like phenols, and more - but that doesn't make what you like a "good" beer.  I can burn a steak black and say I like it that way, but it's still a bad steak by the collective agreement of all Christendom.

I don't write this to bring you down - I do it to highlight the joy we should take in the good beers of the world, and that we should appreciate them even when they're not to our taste, like how I appreciate the quality of a lot of Belgian Strong Ales even though I don't like to drink them! 

Drink GOOD beer, not just popular, trendy, or local beer.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Bring On the Pumpkin Beers

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I know it's fun to rip on pumpkin beers.  Hell, it's practically an annual tradition: too soon, too many, not really pumpkin-made, etc.  But you know what?  I really can't wait to see them taking over the taps this year, and the sooner the better.

Why?  Because for as much as we make fun of them, pumpkin (or pumpkin spice, or squash) beers have become, at least in my humble opinion, some of the better seasonal beers on the market, in a market where almost everything seems to be a seasonal beer (or an IPA...or both).  

It's September.  Bring on the pumpkin beers.

Changing of the Seasons

The "anti-pumpkin" crusades made a bit more sense to me when there were genuinely few seasonal beers on the market.  I don't mean one-offs or limited releases or beers generally made at a certain time of year, but actual seasonal beers.  Lately I've been seeing (in part thanks to my self-imposed no-repeat beer challenge for 2017) an impressive cavalcade of spring beers, summer beers, hop harvest beers, and more, all tuned to a specific available ingredient or seasonal affectation or condition.  In that context, it feels much more that pumpkin beers are simply a logical extension and progression and less like a kitschy gimmick.

Not only that, but the other seasonal beers aren't always well-tuned to the season in which they're offered.  A few weeks back I picked up a mixed "summer celebration" case from a major regional craft brewer, and the thing had a Pilsner (makes sense), two IPAs of 6.8 and 7.2 percent ABV, and a double IPA.  What are you "summer celebrating" there?  Alcohol poisoning and/or heat stroke?  

Say what you will about them, but at least pumpkin/spice beers are well-fitted to their season.  Temperatures start to drop, the beers get a little darker, and we all get that nice sense memory of pumpkin pie to get us primed for football and Thanksgiving.  Works for me.

An Island of Consistency

This is, admittedly, just my subjective interpretation, but it also seems that pumpkin beers are an island of consistency in the otherwise heaving, frothing maelstrom of beer quality.  

Last year I attended an event with about a dozen pumpkin beers available to taste and evaluate.  And you know what?  They were all at least OK.  None were exceptional.  But none were bad, either, and many were genuinely good.  

I've had to dump three beers in the last three weeks (the most recent a fruited Gose that tasted like it was brewed with straight seawater).  I'm ready for a little generic amber/brown ale with some obvious spice additions, even if it isn't the next "hot" thing.

At Least It's Not...

...fill in the latest craft beer trend.  Probably hazy IPAs.  Those damned things are everywhere, which at least might hopefully mean they'll disappear soon (except for the good ones, which with some luck the market might be able to sort out).  Pumpkin spice beers might be cliche and annoying, but you can't pretend they're trendy.  They're probably the most hated-on beer style in the world, and yet every September, back they come.

You gotta respect that.

So, it might not be a five-star, life-changing, Earth-shaking beer, but grab yourself a pint or a sixer of something with an orange label and a punny pumpkin name, and sniff deep.  

And know that the Christmas beers are right behind it.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Beer's Bizarre Bad Attitude

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What's up with some brewers' bad attitude?

I'm sure by now many of you have read this story, about Scofflaw Brewing Co. in Atlanta.  If you haven't, the short version is that, in response to what seems like completely normal feedback/questions about their beer ("Why are beers in the same six-pack so different?"), they responded with "BUY SOMETHING ELSE" and a picture of the brewery staff giving the middle finger to the camera.  

Their rationale seems to be that "we're a small brewery with limited resources and therefore you have to deal with some inconsistency."  Setting that aside for the moment (but I'll come back to it), someone needs to explain to me why a business that sells to the public and seems to put such a premium on cooperation, togetherness, and camaraderie also seems to be home to a not-pervasive but strangely-persistent strain of touchiness and attitude.

This Scofflaw case is the most recent, but it definitely isn't unique or new.

No Returns

At a certain brewpub I used to visit a couple of times a year there was a disclaimer on the beer menu that went something like this: "If you have any questions about a beer, ask your server, because we don't accept any returns if you don't like it."

I understand the impulse.  The place served some unconventional beers, though not so many nor so far outside the norm that this seemed necessary (I saw no such warning on the menu at the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth, and it's way more outlandish).  When you get your third sour beer returned in an hour I'm sure that, as a brewer or bar owner, you want to say "you ordered it, you're paying for it."

I still think it's a stupid thing to do.  First, what's it costing you, really?  Cost per ounce, especially at a brewpub, is pretty low, out the door.  More importantly, though, by getting your $6 on that pint you won't take back you're probably costing yourself business, too.  Enjoy it - you just lost the $300 that person will now spend down the street over the next year.  

And isn't it possible that at least one of those people is right, and there's something wrong with that beer?  Dirty line?  Contaminated keg?  It just seems unreasonable and counterproductive to claim, in writing, that every beer is exactly as it should be and we're just not interested in whether you like it or not or for what reason - you're paying for it.

No Rules

Some breweries seem to think that sanitation, consistency, temperature control, or other standard brewing practices are somehow too "square" for them.  This seems to be the line taken by Scofflaw.  "Fingers for the people who want us to march to the drum."  What?

There's a difference between "technically, biologically, and chemically sound beer" and "corporate beer."  If the complaint about Scofflaw was that they make something other than lite lager, then their response makes sense.  That's not the complaint.  The complaint is that you're making inconsistent (and maybe bad) beer.

It's like saying, "look, Bob, I like you as a roommate, but can you please be a little more conscientious when murdering hobos on the back porch?  The blood attracts coyotes.  At least clean up after yourself," and Bob responding, "OH!  FINE!  I GUESS YOU JUST WANT SOME STRAIT-LACED BANKER TYPE FOR A ROOMMATE!"  Bob has overreacted.  As has the brewery I saw that bragged about its lagers while fermenting in a hot warehouse with no temperature control - guys, that's not "doing it your way," that's "doing it in a way that guarantees you're screwing up the thing you say you're good at."

And make up your mind.  Which is it?  Is it that you don't value/need those things, or that you just can't afford them so your customers have to live with it to drink your beer?  Because it's one thing to say, as Scofflaw did, "This is a small batch brewery. The amount of time a beer spends in a tank, sometimes due to limited human resources, variances in ingredients, and other shit like this affects the beer," and another to present me with a hand gesture suggesting I should go have intercourse with myself.  It's kind of like when I'm driving and the person in front of me isn't turning right at a red light when there's no cross-traffic.  I tap my horn.  You can go, or you can give me the finger - but it makes no sense to do both.  If I'm wrong, why are you going?  If I'm right, why are you flipping me off?

If it's the latter, though, fine - they're right.  If customers want consistency, they'll need to go elsewhere.  But why do you have to give me the finger along with it?

No Feedback

In many cases, we're not even talking about harsh feedback.  We were just discussing this recently - not all feedback is friendly, or well-intentioned, or polite.  But it seems like a certain group of brewers aren't open to any feedback, no matter how constructive or polite.

That's weird. But, again, not uncommon.  The first professional brewer I ever spoke to about beer reacted...badly.  

It's weird because you're offering a product to the public.  You're not an artist - you're a manufacturer.  Is there artistry in beer?  Of course.  Just like there's artistry in cooking, and automobile design, and landscaping, and a bunch of other fields.  Still, it seems more common in brewing than in other fields for producers to tell consumers to go pound sand without even a veneer of "thank you for your feedback" to soften the blow.

No Choice

By the way, not only is it not all brewers, it's not even a sizable minority - but they seem to be spread evenly throughout the beer world, like a ripple of rancid beans in an otherwise great seven-layer dip.  Maybe these brewers, though, have convinced themselves that the people who want their beer have no other choice.

"Fine - you don't like it?  We don't even want you as a consumer.  Our real fans get it."

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe you're falling victim to a logical fallacy.  Maybe your brewery has a fad following.  Maybe your rebellious attitude (to put as positive a spin on it as we can) is actually winning you drinkers and loyalty.  

I'll say this, though: are you willing to gamble your entire business and livelihood on that?  Because the craft beer map is filling out.  There aren't nearly as many places left where I can't get good and creative and consistent and slightly-counterculture beer.  Sure, you can't keep up with demand now - but what about when four breweries open within 20 miles, produce even something that's just close to as good as yours, and don't patronize their patrons?

No Reason

So maybe tone done the attitude a bit.  I don't see how it helps you, to be honest.  What's the reason for it?

The best brewers I know, uniformly, don't act this way, even when given a good reason to.  It isn't like I'm ignorant of the unreasonable-to-stupid feedback and comments breweries have to field, probably every day.  But you don't return fire - because there's no reason to.

Manners cost nothing.  Politeness rarely hurts and often helps.  "All returns accepted, no questions asked" is a reason I shop at a lot of the places I shop at - hell, I once returned cut lumber to a certain hardware big-box store, which is why I dropped $700 there in the past three days (Barbara is out of town, and I gotta fill the time with something...).  Pick your MBA, politeness, or "golden rule" cliche and run with it.

Because I don't see how this attitude survives in a crowded marketplace.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


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