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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

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*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.


A Beer Has No Name: IPA's Existential Crisis

I don't know what IPA is anymore.  And I don't think it knows, either.  Practically speaking, we've reached a point where the designation is largely meaningless.

Appearance: Bone white to jet black.
Bittering: None to teeth-ripping
Flavor: Who the hell knows?
ABV: 3.5-16.5%

Every style has variability - I get that.  I'm not pushing for constriction or mandates or uniformity.  But can we at least acknowledge that the name we put on something should matter, at least a little bit?  

Because at this point, you could call something "beer" instead of "IPA" and probably create as useful an expectation for what's in the bottle.

You Already Know Why

There's no mystery here: IPA sells.  People have come to conflate it with "craft beer that tastes like more than fermented rice syrup."  I've heard lots of folks "explain" that there's "lager and IPA."  I don't mind that, to be perfectly honest, because not everyone's a deep-diving maven on every topic, so they grab on to labels to help organize their knowledge of something, even if it's in a low-information way.  It's like how when I talk about film editing I'll probably misuse the terms "jump cut" and "match cut," because I'm not a professional film editor.  That's normal.  That's rational.  And that's why names matter.  But I've already been down that road.  More than once, apparently.  

So when a brewery slaps "IPA" on something, some large number of them are doing it for marketing purposes.  I'm sure they know that what they made isn't really in the realm of what has traditionally been called IPA, but they'll call it that anyway, either because they're convinced that theirs is a creative interpretation of the style or, more cynically, because they know it'll be easier to get and hold a tap with that label.

I don't care about motive, here, especially.

Bitter

Where things start getting squirrelly for me is when beer geeks start redefining IPA in ways that seem to eliminate its usefulness as a style category.

Let's leave aside most of the "typical" controversies (maybe someday I'll get bored enough to dive into the great haze debate).  I just want to focus on one:

Bitterness.

If there's one thing I could always say about IPA - in all of its varied forms, shapes, colors, strengths, and flavor profiles, it's that it was bitter.  It's a defining feature of the style, and so far as I know it always has been.  But now I'm regularly hearing from folks who are trying to tell me that their "Double IPA" has 20 IBUs.  Or that their standard IPA doesn't have any at all.  

"Nope!  ALL late hopping!" 

Then, forgive me, that's not an IPA.  Or, if it is, then there's nothing defining left of the style.  The name is meaningless.  A beer has no name.  

Hoppy

I can already hear the objections: "No, you don't understand: it's still really hoppy, though, and that's what makes it an IPA."

OK, let's explore that.  What you're saying is that any color, clarity, strength, or bittering level fits as an IPA...so long as the beer has medium-to-high hop flavor and/or aroma?  

Pilsner: IPA (IPL?).
American Pale, Amber, Brown ales: IPA
Altbier: German IPA
English pale ales: Session English IPAs
Kellerbier: Unfiltered IPA
American Porter: Black IPA
American Stout: Also Black IPA
American Wild Ales: Sour IPA

Hell, even the European lagers can feature moderate hop aroma.  

Basically, anything except Belgians are IPAs...unless they're Belgian IPAs.

So you've created a difference without a distinction.

The Appearance and the Reality of a Lack of Choice

If you have something that can include everything, then it arguably means nothing.  Maybe that's just the way we're trending: "IPA" means whatever anyone wants, with a general kind of presumption that it means Americanized or Craft.  If so, it's a bad call. It means that, without doing some reading, you're not going to know if you have a 90-IBU tongue-scraper on your hands or something that's basically a Beermosa.  

It'll sell well, though, I'm sure...for a while.

I'm not predicting the derailment of the IPA Train, quite.  But I'll say this: one of the biggest complaints that craft beer drinkers had in the bad old days was that tap lists were just wall-to-wall light lagers - it was just a question of which one you could tolerate or had identified with.

We're heading back that way, just with IPA instead of macro lager.

On the one hand, this is real.  Go to any "craft beer bar" (or something trying to be) and you'll probably see quite the run of 6-7%, 60-IBU, generally-pale IPAs on offer.  The same also goes for bars that want to carry a couple of "craft" taps: I've virtually never seen one where those 2-3 taps aren't IPAs.  

On the other hand, though, this is illusory - and becoming more so - because of this "catch-all" nomenclature of the IPA.  Even if there's a range of beers on offer, practically, it's hard to know that because everything's labeled "IPA."

And IPA is now, from a communication standpoint, a hollow name.  It doesn't mean anything.  

This has a simple solution, by the way: just call things what they are.  Don't jam them into an ill-fitting "new" nomenclature when they already have a name.  If something is closer to our typical understanding of Porter than our typical understanding of IPA, call it a Porter.  Proximity.  A "spatial" theory of beer style names.  Because, as previously discussed, these names are the single best and easiest tool we have to have some idea of what we're getting when we buy/order beer.

IPA Doesn't Exist Anymore

What's the practical impact of this one-beer-size-fits-all naming approach?  It means IPA doesn't exist anymore.  It's like how "trucks" wouldn't exist anymore if I could sell you a motorcycle and claim it's a "two-wheeled open-air no-cargo light truck."

Trucks can come in all kinds of shapes and configurations.  There are extended cabs, bed-covered things that look more like SUVs, compact trucks, panel trucks, heavy duty and super duty and light duty, and more.  We know what a truck is.

This kind of nominal "death by smothering" is a fascinating way for the IPA to go out: in plain sight, on every tap list, as the best-selling craft beer.  

I honestly wonder if and when we'll actually get around to noticing that it's pulling a "Weekend at Bernie's" and masquerading as alive, when in reality it's been dead for some time.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


Roundup: The Session #123, "CyberBrew"

First, let me thank all of the bloggers who participated in this 123rd edition of The Session!  And, of course, to Jay and Stan for making it happen in the first place.  So, without further ado, we jump into a roundup of what everyone thought of Beer in the Information Age (and if anyone cares, my own brief post on the matter is at the conclusion).

The Brew Site 

Jon Abernathy's take focuses on the interconnection that the internet and social media make possible, and gives a nice rundown of the benefits and costs of this unavoidable linkage mechanism.  On the plus side, small (good) breweries get more attention and have an easier time building a following that can sustain them.  At the same time, the lengthy history of beer (even on the early internet) means that we have a running record of beer and brewery development, attitudes, and history that serves a useful archival function!  

On the negative side of the ledger, however, is one key detriment: especially in a social media age, the internet gives an outsized voice to the more-persistent and louder negative voices.  If 100 people are pleasantly happy with a beer but one is determined to destroy it, that one voice has a motivation to leap online and raise hell, whereas the 100 happy drinkers will simply enjoy their beer and move on.  That the internet is a platform for snobbery and distorted impressions is certainly not a new observation, but it's one that's always worth remembering.

Barrel Aged Leeds

"Do you even blog, Bro?" might be one of my favorite titles of all time.  Pointing out the rapid expansion of the blogging/vlogging/punditry sphere on the internet, we are warned that there is a risk of creating a beer blogosphere that is far too focused on cheerleading in an attempt to garner more likes and shares.  While we have less of a profit motive (ahem...some of us have none at all!) than the breweries themselves (or their PR departments), there's still some incentive to avoid rocking the boat.

We are rightly encouraged to think of the dogs that don't bark - a plethora of positive reviews of a brewery doesn't make it good.  I would concur and add that the same is true for the negatives we hear.  And, of course, as beer writers we might be best served by voluntarily adopting a degree of journalistic detachment and obejctivity.

The Aposition

Tom Bedell provides two recent beer interactions as vignettes on the impact of the internet on the beer community.  First, the near-"miraculous" (despite its now-commonplace nature) phenomenon of being able to gather the beer-interested from around the world via social media to discuss and share beer news and opinions.  The fact that we can now, easily, harness ideas and thoughts from brewers all over the world, instantaneously, is an astonishing thing, whatever its effects.

Second, we're all now also benefitting (and, again, we ignore the revolutionary nature of this) from advanced knowledge of what beer is available where, which means less time hunting and more time enjoying, and fewer disappointing tap lists even in places like airports and sporting stadiums.  It's like when someone finally get a DVR and sees what life is like without the down-time of commercials and the shackles of airing schedules.  It's remarkably liberating!

Kaedrin Beer Blog

Mark delves into this question with abandon, and I couldn't possibly summarize it all here (but I strongly urge you to read it all for yourself - great stuff!), but one point that jumped out at me was the incredible diversity of kinds of beer communities online.  Like a lot of these points, it was something I had observed but never remarked upon.  Trying to nail down online "beer culture" can be challenging because it reflects so many different approaches, concerns, and attitudes.  

With increasing levels of transparency are coming increasing levels of trust online, Mark notes, which is almost certainly a good thing, regardless of the topic or area.

A Better Beer Blog

Alan didn't seem to think much of my question, I regret to report, suggesting that it was "short-sighted" (or, if I'm reading it correctly, failing to appreciate the lengthy internet history of beer).  In my own defense, I don't think I was suggesting that beer is new to the internet - rather that recent changes in both scope and scale of the internet audience, in addition to its transition to an active space rather than a passive resource, might merit a review of how the internet today affects beer.  But I digress...

Alan seems to espouse a radically different view of many of the others in this week's roundup: he suggests that the interconnectedness and dynamic shrinking of the world that the internet and social media provide is merely the "presumption…no, the illusion of nearness."  The interactions found online are artificial.  "All beer is, as a result, properly understood as local and personal."  

It's an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I subscribe to it.  While these interactions may begin superficially and artificially, they often yield real relationships and benefits.  How many visit NHC or GABF and take active steps to meet and spend time with those who were previously only bits of data on a social media feed?  The end result certainly meets the "local and personal" standard, and if what starts that chain of events are the artificial virtual interactions of social media and internet activity, then doesn't that end result add a degree of "realness" to its beginning?  And are we really saying that IRL beer interactions can't be equally fleeting and artificial?  It's certainly a fascinating topic for discussion - more another day...

Ramblings of a Beer Runner

Derrick makes a wonderfully simple case for craft beer on the internet: everyone can and is getting something beneficial out of it.  Breweries get low cost-of-access publicity and direct contact with consumers.  Drinkers get information about beer and breweries and events.  Traders get a wildly expanded universe in which to offer and receive exotic beers.

All of this comes with a caveat, though: there's a lot of noise out there.  And as Derrick notes: "If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to."  I couldn't agree more!

The Tale of the Ale

Dublin-based blogger Reuben Gray stakes out a simple and compelling argument for the modern internet as a craft beer engine.  Information often fuels interest, and the fact the "global explosion in craft beer would be much slower and have far less of an impact without the rise of the internet and specifically smartphones/social media."  I find this to be especially true given the nature of craft beer's position and image in the marketplace: a swarm of "little guys" trying to take down the macro behemoths.  It's the perfect marketing medium for a David v. Goliath narrative.

Reuben also notes, though, that this sword cuts both ways: before everyone and their mother was on social media, and before internet news became ubiquitous, only the most-dedicated of beer people (or the most thorough of newspaper Business Section readers) would have noticed the full buyout of Lagunitas by Heineken.  Now, that information whips around the world (literally) at the speed of light.  Whether it actually helps or hurts the brewery is a question of case and context, but the idea that it could do either is a significant change in the beer world's ecology.

The Beer Nut

Also out of Dublin, The Beer Nut makes a fittingly novel argument: the novelty that pervades the beer world (one-offs, collaboration beers, 20 seasonals to 4 year-round offerings) is a direct result of the ramped-up communications (especially mobile) technology that breweries can now utilize.  When communication with customers was both costly and required firing a marketing shotgun into a crowd of potential beer drinkers, focus was key: serve only a few beers, and preferably have your brand identified by just one.  

With microtargeting, direct messaging, and a market segment constantly on the hunt for new and creative beer, the incentive structure changes, probably permanently.  Sure, you can have a range of really good "everyday" beers, but breweries can now choose to leave that model behind and brew an ever-evolving range of beers and make a living doing it.  An interesting illustration of one way that technology that has nothing to do with brewing changes beer.

Boak & Bailey

Boak and Bailey make a broader cultural argument that seems quite on-target: online and offline are no longer distinct spaces.  The integration of internet-based technology into practical everyday living is, if not complete, then damned near there.  

They follow up with a great question: what is the impact on the local when the global shows up in your pocket?  Certainly there are benefits to each, and just as we should be open to the idea of the exotic and the far-flung we should also take care to nurture and maintain the nearby and the familiar.  How?  That's a much longer discussion for another day.

Beer Simple

My take?  I agree with almost all of what my colleagues have written in the past week on the subject.  I concur that the Information Age (with the addition of social media) has changed the beer world by bringing all of us closer together, enabling interactions that would have been logistically challenging and probably impossible even a few years ago.  And I disagree that these interactions are immaterial or ineffectual or artificial.  

These interactions are real.  Nurture them, and they'll pay dividends.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).