Stand Up For Yourselves, Beer Drinkers

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Today is one of those days when the brewing and beer culture halves of this blog come together, and it's thanks to a social media discussion I took part in yesterday.  The bottom line up front here is this: stand up for yourselves, beer drinkers.  Don't take brewers, breweries, beer writers, or anyone at their word on things that seem to run counter to common sense or your own preferences.

Now, I don't find most beer drinkers to be shy wallflowers (though I think there's a strain of introversion common to people who get deep into the hobby).  I do, though, think that beer is a realm in which rules of thumb, nuggets of information, sound-bite rationales, and so forth are overused, and probably with good reason: it's just beer, after all.  Most people don't (and shouldn't) care enough to actually be critical of what they're told, and don't need (or want) to dig deeper on these issues.  

Sometimes, though...

In the Can

It all started with a social media post that quoted a brewer of a famous Double IPA, who claimed that said DIPA was "designed" to be consumed from the can, and that pouring it into a glass degrades the flavor because there's a "layer of CO2" protecting the canned beer and preventing off-gassing and volatilization and oxidation; said CO2 layer is destroyed by transferring the beer into a glass.

That explanation seems, on its face, to be patently absurd.

First off, all beer has a layer of CO2 sitting on top of it.  CO2 is used to flush the bottles/cans at packaging in most cases, and in addition the act of opening the package and tipping it around while drinking it knocks CO2 out of solution and into the headspace of whatever packaging it's in.  

Second, that layer of CO2 isn't bulletproof.  Gases mix, even when one's heavier than the other (or so it was thoroughly explained and demonstrated to me at one point by a physicist, and I have no reason to believe he was wrong).  So it isn't like leaving it under the CO2 layer provides a robust and irreplaceable guarantee of preservation.

And third - and this is a big one - leaving it in the can means that your entire aroma experience is also pretty inhibited by the layer of metal and plastic between your face and the beer.  Aroma is important in its own right in beer, and aroma also impacts flavor perceptions, so limiting it in a DOUBLE IPA (where very high perceptions of both hops aroma and flavor are central to the flavor profile) would seem to be a bit of a no-no.  Arguably, that would be a much bigger challenge than the supposed "risk" of putting that beer into a glass.  

Look, I could buy this argument for some beers.  A pepper beer that would be too hot in the nose but which has the right flavors to balance said heat in the flavor?  Sure.  A sour beer that's too funky in the aroma but which is perfect when you add in the acidic flavors in the mouth?  Definitely.  But any hops-forward beer?  DESIGNED to be consumed out of a can?  No.  Sorry.  That just doesn't make any sense.

But the Brewer Said...

Yes, I know the brewer was the one who said this.  But brewers have gaps in their knowledge, just like anyone else, sometimes dramatically so.  Just because the brewer told you something, it doesn't automatically mean they know what they're talking about.  When presented with a recommendation that runs contrary to what you're told about drinking just about every other craft beer you've ever had (ever had anyone else tell you to not bother with a glass?), you're perfectly within your rights to ask for an explanation, and to question it if it seems dubious on its face.

Don't just take their word for it. 

Ultimately, this is a matter of preference and I support wholeheartedly the idea that you should drink your beer in any way you choose.  I'm not telling you to do or not do what the brewer is telling you to do - I'm asking you to be willing to question the why of what you're being told to do.  

That's it.  Stand up for yourselves, beer drinkers.

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).


Commemorative Drinking: How I Ended Up Ordering "The Big Boner"

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Sometimes you just have to do things.

There I was last week, walking through the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda.  We were looking for a place to catch a break and something to drink after sweating it out in the not-air-conditioned but surprisingly-not-as-horrifyingly-hot-as-you-might-think Dockyard Glassworks, and we found ourselves walking past the Bone Fish Bar & Grill.  We'd just spent half an hour watching an artist work glass with his bare hands and what looked like dental tools.  The Bone Fish had a nice open-air patio with some good people-watching potential.  Perfect.

I pick up a drink menu, and there is it, staring right out at me: "Order the BIG BONER!  Keep the 50-ounce Pilsner glass."

Now, did I really want 50 ounces of beer?  No, not really.  At least, not all in one shot like that.  But now and again you're confronted with an opportunity and...you just have to.  There's a combination of an atypical circumstance, a singular offering, and a "what the hell, I'm here..." mentality.  

And just like that, you have this sitting in front of you.

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To its credit, it was a pretty solid German Hefe.  And a good thing, too, because I was going to finish that sucker, one way or another.

Commemoration

We do these things because they're landmark experiences.  Everyone, I assume, enjoys having a story to tell.  What we're buying in these scenarios isn't the beer - it's the story that goes along with it.

Beer geek visitors to Philadelphia invariably find themselves directed to a joint called Monk's Cafe, which is entirely deserving of the visit and meets the colossal hype attached to it in a way that the Grand Canyon does.  But even if it didn't, you'd probably go there anyway, because everyone does. [Pro tip: head straight for the back bar.  It's quieter.]

I'll head to Asheville, NC in a few months, and I have no doubt that I'll pay a visit to the Sierra Nevada brewery there, simply because everyone speaks of it in nearly-religious tones.  If someone asks, I want to be able to share my experience visiting that cathedral of brewing.

When next I visit Europe I'll be driving to a certain monastery to visit with the "brewing brother" and picking up my two allotted cases of you-know-what.  Why?  Because it's what you do, and even though I'm not a huge Trappist beer fan, it'll make for a good story.

We do these things because it creates a bond with those who have come before us, and will come after us - whether it's hanging a bra from the ceiling of Big Bad John's in Victoria, BC or catching the 10 bus to order a Rum Swizzle from the Swizzle Inn or drinking Brennivin ("Black Death") in Iceland or buying a Corona from a street corner vendor in Puerto Vallarta or ordering up a stein of Spaten at Oktoberfest.  

Commemoration matters as much as - or more than - quality, even.  And sometimes quality can surprise you - one of the best beers I've ever had was a Coors Banquet right out of the bright tank at the brewery in Golden.  

Order the Roo

Don't overthink it - just go with it.  One of my favorite establishments routinely offers a rotating wild game burger.  I stopped in there one afternoon with my wife to kill half an hour before meeting some folks for...I don't even remember what, but it was about 2:30PM, not remotely mealtime.  I ordered a beer (hand pump standard bitter, as I recall), and the bartender, before walking away, said, "...oh, and our game burger today is kangaroo."

I turned to Barbara and said, "well, I guess I'm eating a kangaroo burger now."  Because honestly, how often are you offered one?

This conversation came immediately to mind in Bermuda last week.  I didn't need or even especially want that giant pilsner glass of Hefe.  But when offered the Big Boner, what else was I supposed to say?

"One, please."

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).

 


Have Beer, Will Travel

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If we're coming up on my birthday (and we are, so if you have a second the best present you can give me is to bookmark this Amazon link and shop there and/or do the same at any of the other fine beer and brewing vendors on our Support page!) then I know one thing for certain: 

I'm getting out of town.

I don't like being made a fuss over, and I don't much want to blow out a candle stuck into a cake I don't much want to eat.  No, I just want a basically "normal" day, and that's easier to do (ironically) when I get out of the state for the day.  Sometimes even the country.  If commercial interplanetary travel ever becomes a thing, you can bet I'll be booking it for sometime in late June.  

And that means traveling with beer, either to bring it with me to some destination and/or to bring it back from some beercation stop.  So, this week, we'll be taking a moment to think about how we transport beer. 

"I Want to Murder whomever designed this cooler."

Not everyone has access to great coolers for beer transport.  For example, I don't do much camping, but those that do have access to some pretty awesome coolers.  I could buy one for myself, I suppose, but somehow I never think of it.  Instead, I'm stuck with my cooler, and deep in my heart I want to murder the person who designed mine.  Or at least torture them a bit - make them watch the last couple of seasons of Sons of Anarchy, say.

It's three cans/bottles wide...actually more like 3.78.  They won't quite fit four.  And it's three cans/bottles long...actually more like 3.29.  You know, so that when you line up your cans and bottles they have room to jostle around, break, get good and agitated.  Just how we like them.

Test this geometry question out before you buy a cooler.  I swear, buy a case of seltzer and walk into LL Bean or Dicks with it.  Don't just read the number of cans or bottles it stores.  Because here's a diabolical twist with my homicide-inducing cooler: it actually fits more cans than it advertises, but it does so in a way that makes you want to hit yourself in the head with a framing hammer.

Can I ship Beer?

You're on the road.  You stop at such-and-such world-famous brewery.  You buy some beer.  Can you ship it home?  Yes, yes you can.  But no, actually, I don't think it's legal.  I've been told you can ship home brewed beer to competitions because it's not commercial (it's diagnostic and a homemade product), but even then you're better off telling them it's something else.  I used to say "yeast samples," but that got weird looks like I was planning on causing a smallpox outbreak, so instead I now just go with "perfume."  Why not?  It's a liquid solution with alcohol and aromatic oils and compounds.  

That's perfume.

No, the best beercation beer retrieval method I know is to pack it home yourself, and if you're doing that, try to avoid flying with it.  Trains are OK.  Driving is best.  Cruise ships will make you check them when you come back onboard, but you'll get them back when you disembark.

Keg it

If you're lucky enough to have your own vacation home - or know the owner and can beg him/her to make a capital improvement - seriously consider investing in a kegerator for your second home or vacation spot.

The advantage here is that you pay a lot less for that beer, especially if you brew it yourself, and lots of vacation destinations are lousy with BYOs.  Stock some growlers, bring yourself a sixtel of beer to the mountains or the beach, and pour away.  

Plus, there's just something really gratifying about pouring beer off of a tap than opening a can or bottle.

Have a Great Independence Day!

So, time to sign off.  I'd like to wish you all a happy Independence Day (July 2nd here in the States - don't be one of those sheep who celebrate the Fourth of July just because that was when Congress issued it's little press release - we became independent on July 2nd), Victoria Day up in Canada, and if you have a national or religious holiday falling sometime between now and the 5ht or 6th when I get back, then a merry time to you as well!

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).


Beer, Culture, and Diversification Mystery Syndrome (DMS)

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I'm into craft beer and brewing.  Over the years, though, I've noticed that being a "beer person" leads people to believe I must also be into cider.  And mead.  And things that have literally nothing to do with beer.  I've come to refer to this phenomenon as Diversification Mystery Syndrome (DMS, for short - sorry, I tried to come up with a beer-related acronym, but nothing would fit...).  

What is DMS?  Where does it come from?  And how many people will stumble upon this article because of my totally coincidental but SEO-friendly fusing of sentences with the terms "DMS" and "brewing" and "beer" in them?  We may never know the answers to these questions, but I want to raise awareness of this condition.  Maybe sponsor a 5K for it.  Or have a federally-recognized week in support of it.

Let's talk about DMS.

DMS, Described

I almost never buy cider. It isn't that I don't like it - it's fine.  But if there's beer available, I'll nearly always choose to buy beer.  Why?  Because I'm a beer nerd.  Same thing with mead, though I'll buy that more often because I like it more...but still nowhere near as much as beer.  So why do any number of groups and individuals lump them together ("4-12% ABV Beverage people")?

Ditto with other "artisanal" and/or "rustic" foodstuffs.  When I walk around a beer festival, why am I looking at cheese vendors selling blocks of whimsically-named products that, based on their price-per-pound, are actually being used to envelop high-quality jewelry?  Why does my local homebrew shop sell "mushroom growing" kits, as though brewing beer means I'm looking to go totally off the grid and abandon purchased food altogether?  How long before I'm seeing urine purification kits so I can just go perfectly self-sustaining and use it to brew so I can drink it before eating my home-grown mushrooms and diamond-stuffed cheese?

Why are so many brewers into kilts?  We have a club tartan on record with one of the best kiltmakers in the world - which makes me happy, because I own three kilts and love wearing them.  But why should other members of my homebrew club feel peer pressure to go buy and wear a kilt? 

These (and others) are examples of DMS.  It is a syndrome whereby beer people are expected (by beer people and non-beer people alike) to also be enthusiasts for things that aren't beer.  And this goes beyond just the superficial visual heuristics of beer folks, like beards or brewery hoodies.  People assume I have additional hobbies based on one barely-related (or not even that) hobby.

It strikes me as strange.  If you told me you're really into running, I wouldn't assume you also mountain climb because they both "use legs." It's also strange because it's somewhat paradoxical: why don't people assume I'm into wine?  Because that seems like it would be right in the DMS wheelhouse along with mead, but for some reason it's almost never invoked...  

There must be something else at play here.  

Culture

I'm not suggesting that hobbies can't incorporate diverse related (or even unrelated) interests or ideas or ideals.  But we should note when this happens: these things crop up, at least in part, because of the development, spread, and persistence of culture.  Craft beer carved out a new cultural space from those who just drank beer because it was there.  When your choices were possibly-tainted water, whatever ale was in the cask, or wine (which was for rich people), then the combination of ubiquity and non-specificity meant that "craft beer culture" wasn't really a thing, any more than "craft water culture" is a thing.  Wait - it's not, is it?  Maybe somewhere in LA or London.  If everyone drinks it, and no one thinks much about it, it doesn't tend to develop cultural traits.

But cultures do form when devotees start to organize and discriminate (take that in its neutral, literal definition).  We start distinguishing craft beer from non-craft beer.  We evolve our definitions and descriptions.  Jargon develops.  Communities form.  And when they reach the point where communication of norms and behaviors and ideas means some level of homogeneity within those communities, you see real cultural development.

"Culture," after all, is simply a collection of shared traits or values that build expectations of behavior or belief.  Sometimes these include activities that fall within the same value system or ideological space: people who brew their own beer may very well also want to make their own cheese or grow their own mushrooms, because they're culinary "DIY'ers."  Or physical artifacts: modes of dress or articles of clothing, like kilts.  Or mentifacts: a sense of solidarity with other craft beverages like ciders or meads.  Culture is earned.  It includes and excludes - which is why most people don't assume a beer nerd is also a wine nerd. 

DMS is like gout: it's a byproduct of cultural "success," and it has specific, culturally-defined symptoms.

Living with DMS

So, you're a beer nerd.  How do you live with DMS?

On many things, it's just going to be easier to assimilate.  Buy the kilt.  Shave your head or grow a beard (or both).  Go to that mead tasting.  Raise chickens, if your homeowners association permits it.  You might find you actually develop a liking for these things, too, and even if you only tolerate them, it'll probably bring you into contact with people you'll like.

But don't feel like you must live up to the expectations of others.  You don't need to be some kind of one-man-band of hobbies and interests.  You can choose to just like beer for its own sake, and refuse to wear flannel except in logging situations.  Don't buy the cider.  Eat store-bought mushrooms.  When asked about your refusal to conform, proudly state:

"I just like beer."

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).


Filling In the Beer Map: First Quarter Update

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Every year I try to set myself some kind of beer drinking challenge.  Last year it was going the full year without having more than one of any beer.  This year, it's trying to see just how many counties in Pennsylvania, states in the USA, and countries in the world I can check off by brewery.  I'm not drinking beer at every meal and shopping extensively at bottle shops to "count" as many places as possible - just choosing deliberately from tap lists and shelves in the normal course of ordering or buying beer.

We're one quarter in on the year, and it's time for an update!

Pennsylvania Breweries - 9/67, 13.4%

As you might expect, the local counties around Philadelphia fell quickly.  Every visit to a local brewpub or tap room (or, if we're being totally honest, my own or others' home breweries) checked off something!  The satellite counties in the area near Reading, Allentown, etc. were also relatively easy, as their beer is common in our market.

Going beyond that has been a challenge.  Schuylkill County*** was easy enough (thanks, Yuengling) and two Erie-area breweries are common around here despite being on the polar-opposite side of the state, but there's a surprising lack of Pittsburgh beer on tap lists in the area.  

A summer trip to the family homestead near Gettysburg should help me knock out some more of these, but in the meantime I'm wondering just how committed local bars are to stocking PA beers rather than just purely "local" beers...

I'm a bit behind pace at just 13.4%, year-to-date, but I also haven't yet determined just how many of these counties don't have a single brewery!  That's what summer is for.  

Moving on...

American Breweries - 22/50, 44%

This has been easier, especially in such an import-friendly beer market.  Again, a particularly "regional" bias exists in what I was able to check off, but in addition to Mid-Atlantic breweries the Midwest has been represented well.  The Eastern Seaboard is almost completely checked off, but I'm drawing a consistent blank on South Carolina.  Suggestions (of breweries that send beer to PA) are welcome!

I have some low-hanging fruit remaining, too: Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut are easily had but not yet cleared out (how have I not had a Maine Beer Co. or Bissel Bros. or Allagash beer yet this year???).  Ditto the Pacific Northwest - nothing from Washington or Oregon.  Those will come in time, I'm sure.

I have a sense that the challenge is going to be in those places with burgeoning but not-yet-matured craft beer scenes.  Arizona and New Mexico, the Deep South, the Plains States, etc.  I'll be keeping my eyes open because I know of some great breweries in many of those states, but they're not super-well-represented on local taps.  

MOST overrepresented?  Michigan.  Good for you, Michiganders!  I see your stuff all over the place.  Excellent beers they are, too.  Let that be a balm on your psyche to help you recover from your March Madness loss to my Villanova Wildcats (GO CATS! \\//).

Global Breweries - 11/195, 6%

I'm actually a little surprised at how small this number is.  I think part of the reason is because I've been focusing on the rarer local and national breweries, and visiting more breweries/brewpubs than beer bars, but there's a surprising dearth of international representation in my purchases this year, thus far.  

A lot of the usual suspects are gone, of course: Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic.  Canada remains a surprising (and large) blank spot on the map, but that's easily rectified the next time I run across a Moosehead or Unibroue.  

And, of course, I'm sure there are a few of these countries that don't export a beer.  I'll update that this summer as well, so we know what we're looking at.  

What I'm really hoping for, though, is a chance to knock out more South American and African breweries.  So far, I'm rocking 0% on those.  My census of "beer exporting countries" will undoubtedly end up demonstrating that the European bias I've seen so far is largely a function of the marketplace, but all the same I may do some proactive hunting to find beers from out-of-the-way places.  Time will tell.

Interim Tally

Out of 312 "places" on my list, in the aggregate I'm 13.5% "checked off."  

I expect that I'll be able to do much more over the summer, when trips to the beach and some international travel will allow me to get outside of my usual market choices and/or give me a reason to hit the bottle shops, but so far I'm enjoying the challenge and grateful for the reason to break out of any beer-drinking ruts I might have!

If any of you have joined me (or want to), feel free: post your progress below, or in future updates, coming quarterly.

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).

***An earlier version of this piece wrongly stated that Yuengling is in Snyder County - I can only assume that Autocorrect freaked out upon reading "Schuylkill County."  

 


Tariffs and the Politics of Craft Beer

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It isn't often that my professional life as a political scientist and my beer life come into contact, but this last week brought them together in an unfortunate way: get ready for some hot tariffs talk.

Tariffs: A Primer

Tariffs, simply put, are a tax levied on trade goods - in this case, imports.  They have a long and complicated history (including why the Constitution mandates that we can only tax imports and not exports), but the most common use of tariffs is in response to unfair trade practices.  Usually, we're talking about dumping.

"Dumping" is when a country's manufacturers export a product and sell it at a deliberately low price to undercut the market and drive competitors out of business.  This predatory pricing approach makes it impossible for domestic (or other foreign) producers in the target market to stay profitable, and if the foreign company is willing to take the loss in the short term, they can eventually bring prices back up when they become the last company standing - they're paying a short-term cost to create a monopoly later.  In response, the targeted nation can impose tariffs as a defensive/protectionist mechanism.  Tariffs artificially increase the price of imported goods.  This acts to protect domestic industries from dumping.  Simple, right?

In this case, the argument goes, cheap steel and aluminum are making it hard for American metal producers to stay in business, since labor costs tend to be higher in the US.  We want to protect American metal manufacturers and their employees.  

There's a healthy argument to be had about whether the largest metal exporters to the US engage in dumping, but the preponderance of economists' opinions is that it's a very minor concern (after all, our largest metal-import customer is Canada, which has similar market conditions to work with).  

Politics aside, though, why do we care?  Because this would have a substantial impact on craft beer, in particular.

The Craft Case Against Tariffs - it's not just cans

A major problem here is that, more and more, craft beer is being packaged, shipped, and served in cans.  

"But aren't nearly all cans made in the USA?  This wouldn't affect 98% of them!"

Yes, they are.  But the materials they're made from are often not from the US - they're imported and then worked here, which means these tariffs will hit them squarely in the...can.

"OK, but how much?  I mean, we're only talking like one cent per can."

Yes, we are.  And that's enough.  Craft breweries are already operating on a very tight profit margin, and even incremental cost increases are going to hurt.  Not only that, but it's already problematic (from a sales/marketing perspective) that craft beer costs substantially more than macro beer.  If a 30-pack of a macro lite lager increases in cost by a penny a can, the global beer companies can absorb that cost simply by virtue of their overall size, or if they pass it on they have the pricing "room" to do so.  Not only can the small craft brewer not absorb that cost, increasing prices to account for it will end up exacerbating the price disparity and driving the sticker price higher.  

Then there are the secondary and tertiary effects.  The prevailing wisdom - which may not be accurate, but which is historically consistent and logical - is that other countries will retaliate by imposing tariffs on American products, most notably (because we grow food like nobody's business) agricultural products.  A tightening market for agricultural goods will have mixed effects, of course, but it will almost certainly hit barley and wheat and other grains, which will have downstream effects on beer ingredient costs.  I don't think hops will be much affected, but it's not a slam-dunk that they won't.  

This isn't just about cans.

Cost/Benefit

It's not at all likely that this action - assuming it is fully implemented and not remedied by the US Congress - will actually result in anything good in the US or global economy.  Industries that rely on aluminum and steel have lost jobs when this has been attempted in the past - to the tune of about five jobs lost to every one saved in the steel industry (directly - indirect effects can eliminate or reduce wages in up to 200 jobs for every one saved).  And let's not forget that the only real function of a tariff is to increase costs.  No one wins a trade war.  In the face of obvious dumping, targeted tariffs can meet a real need, but these are universal.  Metal costs are rising in the US.  It's unavoidable.  Which means that even if we save a few jobs, the benefits will accrue to only those few individuals, while the costs will be shared out collectively in higher prices on almost everything made with steel or aluminum.

And craft breweries will be caught in a bad, bad spot as a result.  They can't just suddenly pivot to something else - back to bottles, right? - because a) it's not that simple, and b) even if they could it would increase lots of other costs since glass is both breakable and a heavier-weight item.

Will this hurt the big breweries, too?  Yes, but they can take the punch better than your average microbrewery.  A corporation that runs at a loss (or a smaller profit margin) for a quarter or two might see a slight decline in its stock price; a local brewery in the same boat might be driven under.

Ideology and partisan identification aside, if you enjoy craft beer, you should be calling, e-mailing, and writing to your representatives to oppose this action.  The costs far outweigh the benefits overall, and are potentially lethal to craft brewers.

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).

 


On the Road: How Every Trip Has Become a Beercation

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There are myriad reasons to enjoy the expansion of craft beer and the quadrupling of the number of breweries, tap rooms, and brewpubs out there, but my favorite might be this: it's increasingly harder to be hard up for something to do on a road trip.  Whether cruising the back roads of the Green Mountains of Vermont or pausing for a night's rest on a cross-country trek somewhere in the wilds of Montana or taking a little detour to check "Asheville, NC" off of the beer bucket list, almost every trip can now be (at least partly) a beercation.

The Virtue of Fear

I'm afraid of flying, and not ashamed to admit it.  Even if I didn't consider it insanely hazardous and just-this-side of witchcraft, I also don't like the experience.  To quote Elizabeth Kostova's "only way you ever read this thing is if you're an insomniac like me" novel The Historian, "flying takes the 'traveling' out of travel."  You arrive hours before your flight, shuffle through security, and pray that one of a dozen travel hiccups doesn't leave you stranded on a tarmac or cooling your heels for a day or two in an airport hotel.  And if everything does go well, you go from one anonymous spot on the globe to another, with nothing but dry, recirculated air and bad food in between.  Ick.  

No, I much prefer to drive.  True, it's more dangerous, but it doesn't seem so to someone who's afraid of heights, and it has the added benefit of giving me control over where I'm going and when - which trains, perhaps the most romantic way to travel, don't do.

This means that when Barbara and I are planning a road trip to anywhere, I can basically just navigate a brewery-to-brewery itinerary, even if they're a bit off-the-beaten-path.  It helps that she doesn't drink - I'm guaranteed a DD.  Breweries live in the darndest places, too.  Industrial parks, in the middle of open fields, on main drags and side streets and in small towns or big cities or rural retreats.  Tracking them down can test both your nerve and the limits of your GPS.

And, as an added bonus, you get to try out beers that you would likely never find at home: of the 5,000-plus permitted breweries operating in the US, only a tiny fraction move their beer out-of-state.  

Not a bad bit of compensation for being a scaredy cat. 

What to Do?

We once spent an interminable day on a road trip.  Not the driving - that I can live with, since at least you're watching the miles tick off and feeling like you're making progress.  No, this was a day spent in a town that couldn't entertain an inmate just out of solitary confinement.

We'd spent the morning at a battlefield site and national park, and it was a blast.  Learned something, enjoyed ourselves, took some pictures, etc.  Around midday we moved on to the town where we'd be spending the night, having previously read about its bustling main street and thinking, "well, surely we'll be able to find some fun there!"  

Nope.  About 80% of said "main" street was closed stores.  I don't mean, "not open on a Sunday," I mean literally boarded up.  I swear, I literally saw a tumbleweed blow across the street.  It was worth about 45 minutes of our day, and even that was stretching it.  We fled40 miles to the nearest other bit of civilization, a small outlet mall off of the highway - no dice there, either.  It was set to close at 5PM (on a Friday night).  We ended up sitting in our hotel room eating chain-restaurant pizza and counting the hours before we could hit the road again.  

With the proliferation of so many breweries today, though, we should never have to clock-watch a day like that again.  It guarantees that there's always something to do.  We can hop from brewery to brewery, almost anywhere we go.  And it isn't just we childless folks who can use these as entertainment oases: breweries are often kid-friendly, dog-friendly, and if you contact them in advance they'll often be happy to host you for a visit even if it isn't their usual "touring" times.  

Universal

I don't know that we've ever taken a trip specifically to visit one brewery, though.  I know many who have, and I'm not disparaging the practice - I'm just saying that when it comes to brewery visits I'm more of a gatherer than a hunter.  I'll visit places that are convenient, or en route, or, perhaps, pick a stopping point for the night that happens to have a couple of brewpubs in town, but I don't see us making a specific pilgrimage.

I guess everyone has their exceptions - you'd better believe that the next time I'm in Belgium we'll be paying a little visit to Westvleteren - but as a rule, I prefer it my way.  Hell, we more or less accidentally visited a little brewery called Alchemist in my early "beer enthusiast" days (kind of a larval beer geek) just because it happened to land between Concord, MA and Burlington, VT.  Not all are that now-famous, of course, but the little places we've found along the way stick with me.  Montana Brewing Co. in Bozeman.  Lubec Brewing in the northernmost point in Maine.  Moon River Brewing Co. in sultry Savannah. 

More than providing a place to get a meal and a beer and kill a couple of hours, the "movable beercation" that we now get to enjoy feels like a cultural touchstone that connects huge swaths of humanity.  Beer people are wonderfully diverse, and yet wherever I am, if I'm in a brewery, I know that I can talk hops, whether they've got a barrel project going, where they see the industry headed, share horror stories of exploding bottles, and get into arguments about overrated breweries.

Beer is universalizing.  And that means that wherever we roam, corny as it sounds, I've got a bit of "home" to lean on.  I really like that.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

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I heard something funny the other day.  Not "ha ha" funny, but "weird" funny.  I was in the beer section of a particular grocery store, and inadvertently eavesdropping on a couple trying to decide which beer to buy.  This was what I heard:

"What do you think about this one?" 

"No way.  I'm not giving my money to some rich craft brewery."

I couldn't help but stalk them a little and take a gander at which brewery they were talking about.  They were in the "PA Craft" section, after all, and that's "us."  I mean, it was already odd that someone wasn't invoking the Evil Empire when discussing how they weren't giving their money to "one of those" breweries, but I can concede that there are some craft breweries that pull down pretty nice stock prices and such.  I thought, "probably Yuengling."  The brewery in question, though, wasn't some world-beater craft-y corporate place with a wealthy CEO and bicoastal breweries:

It was Victory Brewing Co.

Wait, what?

Optimum Size Theory

I grant you that Victory is a healthy brewery.  They have more than one facility.  They sell in 38 states and a few foreign countries.  

But they're not even in the top 50 in terms of production according to the Brewers Association, and they're a local brewery to the people I overheard.  

That really got me thinking. 

 I've written before that, as demand flattens and breweries start to close, craft beer drinkers might end up distorting the marketplace by rewarding local breweries over good breweries, simply out of sheer locavore sentimentality, and accidentally kill good medium-sized breweries.  This was something much more virulent, though.  These folks were essentially arguing that size wasn't just a consideration to be factored in - it was enough, on its face, even at only modest levels, to disqualify a purchase from a local brewery.  

This would strongly suggest that - if these people weren't the exception rather than the rule, and some conversations I've had since would indicate that they're not - a brewery's optimum size is really, really small.  

In a way, that makes sense.  If a desire to keep local breweries afloat drives purchase intentions, then the proliferation of them will mean that the median size of the brewery you're looking to support is going to drift towards the smaller end of the set, lopping off local-but-larger breweries in the process.  

Logical though it might be, it's still surprising to me, because it suggests that craft beer drinkers have particularly weak brand loyalty.  

The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

Where I'm still in the fog is what the medium- and long-term effects of this will be.  Some high-profile brewery closures recently have prompted a lot of navel-gazing and crystal-ball peering, but so far the talk about them has been all over the place. Overreached on distribution.  Over-leveraged their expansion.  Too-rosy assumptions about sales growth.  Not maintaining quality.

Some have said that this is a sign that the craft beer "fad" is over, and that even the local places will go under - it's just the bigger breweries that feel the hit first, so they're the canaries in the coal mine.  It's the beginning of the end.

Others have maintained that this is just a bellwether for production craft breweries particularly, and that the craft beer world will soon be overrun with nothing but brewpubs.  In other words, this is more the "end of the beginning" than the "beginning of the end," and that the beer world is simply evolving to accommodate the several thousand new breweries that didn't exist a decade ago.  

I tend to agree with the latter, but that doesn't mean it won't end with the former.  A healthy craft beer sector probably needs both the local brewpub that's serving a "dining out" customer and the craft production brewery that could theoretically take advantage of economies of scale to put them into at least reasonable price competition with big beer in a retail setting.  In other words, I think we need to win on the taps and on the shelves.  

Killing off the medium-sized craft breweries through not-so-benign neglect would likely have the effect of fully bifurcating the beer market into the "crafty" ABI-owned sector that would sell through retail locations and the "craft" local brewery sector that relies on $7 over-the-counter pints to keep the doors open.

I guess time will tell.  Just musing here, on a Friday morning...

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).