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

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).


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).

 


10 Simple Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2018

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Happy New Year, gang!  2017 was an excellent beer year, and I managed to keep (almost) all of my resolutions.  I didn't have more than one of any beer (a habit that's proving surprisingly difficult to break, but some pitcher-ed Miller Lite at a bowling alley helped), tried a number of new beer bars (rather than just tap rooms at breweries), made a (passable) perry, and I would have gone back to my least-favorite brewery to try out their beer but (I swear this is true) they closed two weeks before I'd planned on going.  

So, what's on tap for 2018?

10. Drink Around the State, Country, and World

As noted last week, this year's beer challenge will be to see what percentage of PA counties, US states, and countries in the world I can "visit" via their beer.  Should be fun, especially when the "easy" places are checked off of the list!  Just the other day I ordered an IPA from a brewery in Wyoming, because when you're looking at a state with fewer residents than South Philly, you'd probably be wise to take that beer where you can find it!

9. Brew a "Wet Hop" beer

I've played around with fresh hops, thanks to friends with bumper hops harvests, but I've never specifically brewed a beer exclusively with them and designed for them.  I'm hoping to go mobile with my brewery and do it on-site for maximum freshness.

8. Visit every brewery within 20 miles of home

Some might scoff, but that's a lot of breweries.  Every now and then someone asks me if I've been to a brewery, and I'll say no and ask where it is, and it'll turn out to be within a few seconds of a route I travel regularly.  That's wrong.  I'm not a "drink it because it's local!" guy, but I definitely want to support good breweries - and if I haven't visited, I don't know if they're any good.  

7. Brew with five new yeast strains

There's a fine line between consistency and being in a rut, and just to be sure I'm not doing the latter, I'm going to brew ten batches with five new yeast strains this year.  Preferably strains I'm not in any way familiar with.  But never that Trappist High Gravity yeast - there's something really wonky in there...

6. Empty my beer fridge completely, and start fresh

I swear I have beers and meads in there that I've had for so long I have no idea what's in them and/or I've forgotten what the code on the top means.  I wish I could say it's because I've been deliberately aging them, but I don't want to lie to you.  They're just the ethanol-laced debris at the back of the shelf.  This could be an ugly summer...

5. Replace my Better Bottles

I had this on the list last year.  I just didn't do it.  But the same logic applies: I've still never had an obviously contaminated batch, and I'm worried it's lurking in there someplace...

4. Rebuild my taps and faucets

I've never been especially happy with my tap handles, and I have a couple of new stainless faucets, so I think it's time for a freshening up in the service department!  I have three beautiful new black-gloss painted handles, and I'm looking forward to dressing them up with some magnetic tags to indicate what they're serving.  

3. Get back in the habit of bottling

For some reason, I've gotten out of the habit of bottling up a six-pack of my beers and setting them aside for competitions, which I've always done as a form of quality control.  Kegging is easy, but bottling a little bit isn't that hard, and it's a great way to keep a steady stream of beer evaluation data coming in.

2. Use homebrewed beer to raise money for a good cause

As a member of a homebrew club, I've gladly participated in events where our beer is donated and poured, but I don't think I've ever explicitly used homebrewed beer to raise money for a charitable cause.  Once I figure out if that's legal, I'm going to do it. 

1. Keep writing Beer Simple

I love writing Beer Simple.  I'm grateful to all of you for reading, for your feedback, for your ideas, and for your time.  I know that if it's ever time to stop, you'll let me know.  Since I haven't received any voodoo dolls or horse heads yet, I guess we'll just keep it rolling.  Have a great 2018! 

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 New Beer: A Look Back at 2017, A New Challenge for 2018

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One year (and a few hours) ago, I started down the road on a unique beer challenge.  I mean that literally: I wanted to see what it would be like to have only one real pour of any beer for an entire year.  Once I'd had one serving of it, that was it, I couldn't have it again until 2018. 

Well, here we are, one year (and a few hours) later, and I'm happy to report that it was a highly enjoyable experience that, I think, casts light on some interested beer and beer culture questions.  The short version is that there's a ton of beer out there, I barely scratched the surface, and vacationing is a far bigger threat to beer diversity than anything else I've noticed.  

It was quite a year.

The Tally

First, one number: 409.  I had 409 unique "tagged" (in Untappd) beers this year, and some number of homebrewed beers, but most of those weren't trackable.  I did, though, make a conscious, good-faith effort to avoid any potential repeaters there, and I think I was successful.

Now, some of you Untappd Rambo-like figures out there might be scoffing at my humble 409 total, but I'd contextualize that.  First, I wasn't trying to rack up a huge number - in fact, I was hoping to avoid it, since the second I checked a beer in, I couldn't have it again!  As a result, that number doesn't represent every beer I shared or tasted over the course of a year, just the number where I had a "proper" serving of it (between 6-22 ounces, plus three very enjoyable and totally within the rules liters of different beers at an Oktoberfest event!).  It could have been a bit higher.  But still, admittedly, nowhere near you folks that rack up 1,000 or more every year...

Second, that number squares pretty neatly with my "normal" consumption tally for the year, which is telling.  In 2016 I tracked every beer I drank, and ended up at 381 pints.  If we assume that most of these in 2017 were 14 ounces in size, on average (which is probably right, if we assume a reasonable mix of at-home 12-ouncers, pints out, and the occasional lonely bomber), then that 409 beers works out to 351 pints, plus whatever homebrew I had.  

My takeaway?  Having to open/order a brand-new beer every time didn't seem to be much of a hinderance in terms of being able to enjoy beer when I wanted.  I can't think of any occasions where, for example, I couldn't find anything on tap that was fair game for me and had to pivot to wine, mead, liquor, etc.  

The Roster

Then there were the beers I was drinking.  I guarded pretty jealously what I assumed would be my "bail out" beers: those macros you find everywhere.  I figured that I'd be forced into situations where the only option was a Big Beer product or lineup, and so these were my "In Emergency Break Glass" (maybe literally, based on the flavor of some of these things...) beers.  

I was totally wrong.  I was almost never forced into that situation.  In fact, I remember only twice: a dinner at a chain Latin place where I'd just been a week before, and a lunch at a beach town dive bar that we often visit more than once when we're in town.  In both cases, though, there were still local craft options available - but only two or three, and I'd returned before the taps had a chance to change over.  

As a result, I had almost the entire macro roster at my disposal right up until the end of the year.  In order to heighten my enjoyment of a return to beers I'd last had a year before, in fact, this was my New Year's Eve lineup from last night (plus one Thomas Hardy 2006 barleywine, because you need to pair something good with a 10-plus pound prime rib and shrimp):

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You really should have seen the nasty looks I got from the craft beer lovers at Wegmans when I put that beauty of a mixed sixer together...

Finding new craft beers was easy.  Even at corporate and chain locations, craft taps were available.  And even in places that don't choose from the hyperinflating universe of craft beers, but instead brew their own, I still didn't have any trouble.  We visit one particular brewpub 2-3 times per month, and I never even got to half of their "core" lineup because there were so many seasonals and one-offs to choose from.

The Weak Link

If there was a weak link here, it was...me.  I don't mean personally (though it's definitely possible), I mean that the only real challenge I encountered was keeping beer in stock at home or, especially, on vacation.  A five-hour game night might mean 4-6 cans/bottles of unique beer.  A week at the shore might mean a case.  A visit to a local BYO becomes a fridge-depleting hit.  

This was hardly a concern, though.  First, because my family, friends, and homebrew club made it super tolerable.  We do a couple of mixed-case buys in the club per year, and even with a couple of "oops, already had that one..." selections in them, they were incredibly useful in keeping my beer diversity needs met.  Plus, friends and family would pick up or split out singles of beers from their travels and visits.  Then there were the beers I get to review for Beer Connoisseur.  Yes, I had to visit the bottle shop now and again and pay a bit of a premium for mixed packs, but so what?

After all, this was a problem not of beer quality, quantity, or availability, but rather a structural problem unique to this challenge.  It's not as though it was hard because the local beer stores only carried a few brands - it was because I only needed one can (leading to absurdities like when you need to buy a 30-pack of Narragansett to make your "Quint from Jaws" costume work because they only have it in a megapack, but can only drink one...).  

The Benefits

All told, this was a fun year.  I highly encourage you all to give this a shot - maybe not for a whole year, but for some length of time.  

The biggest benefit was that it encouraged me to experiment.  Ordering a beer from a brewery I'd never heard of or hadn't yet tried out became an advantage, and it broke me out of an ordering rut in terms of breweries and styles.  I had more fruit beer, Belgian beer, seasonal beers of all kinds in this year than I've had in years, and it showed me how surprisingly narrow my beer buying habits had become (I still brew a crazily-diverse array of beers at home).  

It also confirmed that, at least in my area, there's absolutely no empirical evidence of a serious re-consolidation of the beer market.  I know that buyouts, mergers, and more make us legitimately concerned about contraction in the market yielding fewer choices, but if it's even possible it's still a long ways off.  409 beers this year, and I don't think I even made a dent in what's out there.

Finally, and I think this is always a good thing, it made me more-conscious of what I was ordering and drinking. Whether we're too enamored of the latest trendy thing and knee-jerk order every "limited release," or routinely order your old stand-byes rather than branching out, "habit" in consumption is arguably not a great thing.  I loved being forced to scrutinize tap lists and bottle shop shelves for something different.  

This was a great experience, and while I'm not going to keep it going (though that would be fascinating - I wonder how long you could keep it up???  Years, I imagine), I do have a new challenge for 2018 that should yield a lot of the same benefits.

 The New Challenge

This year, I can drink as many of each beer as I want (and I'm looking forward to a few carefully-preserved Sierra Nevada Celebrations later today).  But what's life without some kind of fun challenge?

In 2018, my goal is to drink geographically and see just how much of the globe I can span.  There are about 195 countries in the world, 64 states/territories in the US, and 67 counties in Pennsylvania.  That's 326 jurisdictions.  Let's see how many can be checked off between now and December 31st, 2018!  

Same basic rule: at least six ounces constitutes a real "serving" of the beer.  Some of these places (I'm thinking of the rural counties in PA) may not have any breweries, but this is a perfect excuse to hunt down those that do!  I feel confident I'll be surprised how few "blank" spots there are on the beer map (though we're not discounting at all the plight of those who live in effective beer deserts, even if they happen to have one craft brewery in the county).  I'm looking forward to doing the survey of what's out there...and then doing so again in a few months to see if new breweries have popped up!

Should be fun.

Have yourselves a great New Year's Day, I'll be back later this week or next week with this year's Brew Year's Resolutions, and thanks for reading in 2017.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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DE-FENSE: A Case Study in Bar Defensiveness Over Beer Mistakes

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I swear, I didn't want to say anything.  I sat quietly.  I watched football on the big screens.  I thought about what I would order when I met my family for dinner in an hour.  But the hive brain on social media told me to say something.  Hell, I told me to say something (via BS, in a prior piece).  

I'd been given a patently wrong beer.  I was about to bring it up.  Let's go to the mental video tape...

Situation Report

So, I'm stupid enough to visit the largest mall in the United States two weeks before Christmas on a routine errand.  As I'm waiting in traffic to literally get into a parking lot so I can then prowl around like a stalker looking for a space, I realize that this is futile, and make my way to a nearby bar to kill an hour before meeting some family for dinner at one of those eat-until-you-die Brazilian steak houses (great time, but I think I prefer the cook-for-yourself fondue places).  

This is a place with a big wall of chalkboard with their craft beer selections on it - probably 40-ish, total.  Big wall of taps.  Reclaimed wood everywhere.  You know the kind of place.  I order a rye IPA from a local brewery.

It arrives.  I sniff and note pepper/phenol (weird...and no hops) and taste it: this is clearly not a rye IPA.  Sharply sour, medium-high levels of fruit, no hops to speak of.  I look at the board and find a likely culprit - a blueberry wild ale.

Thus my dilemma: do I say something?  It tastes fine, I don't mind sours, and it's shift-change time on a Saturday at 5PM (so, not rammed or anything, but certainly not quiet).  

Egged on by you agitators, I catch the eye of the bartender...and the fun begins.

A Descending Spiral of Nonsensical Defensiveness

I follow all of the rules I've recommended to others.  Polite, courteous, apologetic, etc.  No ranting or demands.  Short version: "Sorry to bug you, and I'm really enjoying this beer, but I think it's different from what I ordered.  Maybe there was a tap connected to the wrong keg or something?  Anyways, just wanted to see if there's a sour on that [Rye IPA] tap."

Phase 1: Obstruction.  "We don't give samples."  OK.  Well, I didn't actually ASK for a sample, and I've subsequently been told by lots of people that they DO give samples, but in any case... I respond that that's OK, I don't want a sample, they can taste it themselves.

Phase 2: Misdirection.  Said bartender pulls a couple of ounces.  Tastes it.  Gives me one.  I taste it.  They're definitely different.  Hell, they LOOK different.  I say, "wow, yeah, not the same."  Bartender says, "I think they're the same..."  NOTE: She hasn't tasted mine.

Phase 3: Explanation.  Our bartender is joined by another individual - a second bartender, maybe a bar manager or shift supervisor?  And now it's education time.  "No, you see, it tastes sour because this is a Rye IPA."  I haven't yet said the words, "I'm a brewer and a beer judge," nor shall I.  Don't wanna be an alehole.  But it's hard.  Instead, I mention that I've had Rye IPAs, and never noticed sourness.  Also, there's fruit - I offer her my glass to sniff, because there's a ton of berry coming out of this thing.

Phase 4: Deflection.  "Maybe it's the banana wheat..."  OK, this is kinda progress because at least we're conceding that it's not Rye IPA, but if there's one beer back there I'm sure it's not, it's the banana wheat.  

Phase 5: Conclusion.  "In any case, you drank most of it and you've already paid, so we can't give you a refund."  At this moment, my wife texts that they're at the restaurant.  I assure her again I'm not asking for anything, just wanted to let her know about the issue.  

END SCENE

De-Fense!!  De-Fense!!

It might be appropriate that I was watching the Detroit Lions have one heck of a defensive day against the Chicago Bears.  Because that's what this whole encounter reeked of (other than berries and Brett): defensiveness.  Why?  I mean, I'm just trying to help here - shouldn't you want that?

Why am I bringing it to you all?  Not sure.  I don't know that I have a larger point on this one.  I think I gave them every possible "out" to save face - they just didn't bite.  Nor did they seem much interested in them.  And this was a place that supposedly is pretty proud of its big craft beer selection.

Maybe it's a sign that even places that don't care about craft beer are serving it, which is still a win, but it also means that the "craft" part might not be getting the attention it deserves from the vendors.  

In any case, I may need to reevaluate, going forward, whether it's worth mentioning stuff like this.  Maybe it would have been better off as an e-mail to the management, but I don't like going over folks' heads, either, and I don't like the idea that that kind of defensiveness is hard-wired into bar staff, if indeed it is and this wasn't just a fluke.

So, just wanted to share the story.  If this has happened to you, you're not alone.  I'd love any suggestions anyone has for this kind of scenario, moving forward.

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).