Brewing

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).


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).


Thinning the Herd: The Upside of Big Beer Buyouts

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I know that there are good reasons to be deeply concerned about the effects of Big Beer getting into the game of buying out craft breweries.  Ownership confusion, pricing effects, tap and shelf space, and all the rest are real...but I still can't help but think that we're overlooking at least one big benefit and one significant advantage.

Bear with me here.

The Benefit: Rationalizing the Market

In some markets, you only have a few real craft breweries.  For the most part, though, these aren't the places that see buyouts.  Now, that doesn't mean that Goose Island being available everywhere can't choke out a small production brewery in a place with a nascent craft beer scene - I'll concede that risk.

I mention it only because it's in the crowded beer markets that this can be a good thing for we craft beer enthusiasts.  How so?

Let's say you have ten breweries in your metro area.  Each is only getting 1/10th of your beer money.  Now let's imagine one of your breweries takes a buyout.  What's the effect?

Well, if you think, "oh well, don't care," then the action has no real impact on the other local breweries - you're still spreading your cash around in the same way (each gets 10%).  But if you're in the "Never ABI" camp, then you're never going to patronize that bought-out brewery again, which means that the other local breweries are about to see an increase in their sales (each gets 11.1%), thanks to you and those like you.

So, in this case, in terms of the local economic impact, it's either neutral or positive with respect to the spending of what we might call the "core" and "aware" segment of the local beer drinking community.  ["But that's not enough to keep a brewery going!!!," I can already hear you saying - I'll get back to that, I promise.]

A corollary benefit is that it simplifies the market a bit.  As it is now, my metro beer market is so crowded I need to take a special "tour" every May to the local breweries I haven't had the chance to visit yet.  Now, that might not be true everywhere, but it certainly is in craft-heavy markets.  One bought out means one more I don't need to consider buying, which means I can try out something new.

The Advantage: Beating Big Beer

The strongest objection to this "benefit" is that it's ignoring the idea that most people aren't craft beer geeks like me/us.  Believe me, I'm aware of it.  Someone recently told me they don't like Dunkelweizen because it "finishes so hoppy."  I don't expect most people to be intimate with beer styles, the merits of canning v. bottling, or the differences in strains of Brett (why would they???  It's a waste of time and brainpower!).  And I also know that most aren't going to be paying attention to who owns whom, so when they're at a restaurant or their local beer shop, they're going to buy based on something other than local, independent ownership (or not).

Doesn't matter.  Because the way to beat big beer is to keep things small and local and brewing in-house.  And that brewery actually can be kept going by a combination of beer geeks and local sentiment.

I live just over the river from Phoenixville, PA.  Now, you may not know it, but Phoenixville ranks 10th in the United States for breweries per capita.  How does a place with about 50K people in a 5-mile radius support ten breweries?  Easy - they're all relatively small.  

You can't outcompete Big Beer as a massive production brewery.  You might not even be able to do it as a small production brewery.  But you can do so at street-level.  These breweries in P-ville compete, but only in the same general way that restaurants on the same busy main street compete with each other.  Then there's the fact that brewpubs yield a higher return on their beer products than production breweries do (no packaging, shipping, etc. and a captive population).  And since they're not sustaining a massive brewing and distribution infrastructure to do it, they're not as susceptible to the kinds of pressure and market distortions that the big breweries can bring to bear.

Big beer can choke off access to ingredients and supplies, buy off competitors, lobby for advantages in distribution rules, and more.  But they can't do much about a local, 3-barrel, 75-cover brewpub.

The Right Outcome

I also have to say that I think a trend towards smaller breweries in general (and brewpubs in particular) is exactly what we should want in our beer world.  It means that you get a high level of product diversity and fresher beer.  It should mean better beer, because market pressures will thin out the herd of a larger collection of smaller breweries in a way that they probably won't for 2-3 medium-sized local breweries.  Brewpubs often do, also, bootstrap small production operations off of their on-premises sale profits.  Hell, it probably even has sustainable economic benefits - more small breweries mean more hiring in what is already a labor-intensive sector, compared to larger automated craft breweries.  

The masses will never be sold on buying Saison and Bock and even IPA (the most popular craft beer style is still pretty polarizing among non-craft beer people).  And craft breweries that try to outcompete Big Beer on lite lager have a massive uphill battle, undoing decades of brand loyalty, to say nothing of the maybe-monopolistic tactics of those breweries.  

Let's stick with what we might call the "Phoenixville Model." 

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).

Thanks for pitching in!  I mean, come on, it's a few clicks - just do it...


Sunset on the Beer Savanna: More Beer, Fewer Mouths

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Points in Brewing Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Beer – Fewer Mouths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Don’t Know

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

Maybe not.

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

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

A Train Leaves San Diego at 55 MPH…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.

JJW

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

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Beer Yoga Is Stupid (or the "Taking Beer Seriously Equilibrium")

For any thing that anyone cares about, there's someone who cares insultingly little about it and, at the other end of the spectrum, someone who cares way too much about it.  This week, we're going to see if there isn't some kind of "sane middle" that we can agree on.  Because if there's one thing I know, it's this: "beer yoga" is really stupid.

I'll admit that some of us take beer too seriously - me included, probably, since I actually pay money to produce a beer blog that generates virtually no revenue.  But at the same time, I don't think it's out of line to suggest that maybe people shouldn't use craft beer as some kind of artisanal prop, either.

You're Taking It Too Seriously

When I saw an April Fool's joke that suggested Cantillon was soon going to begin distributing in cans, I laughed my ass off - which is a massive warning light that one might be a bit too "into" a certain hobby.  That's a seriously esoteric and geeky joke.  But geekiness, in and of itself, isn't really something to be too concerned about.  If anything, it's a natural pendulum-swing away from a postmodern society that's "so over" almost everything, and where enthusiasm is almost something to be ashamed of.  

That's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about the people who feel the need to treat beer as an almost theological enterprise.  We've talked before about the dogmatists among us (and thanks for the "you're not insane" support from Brulosophy on that one).  Beer, brewing, homebrewing, beer judging, and other cognate/tangential sectors of the beer world are lousy with martinets, sticklers, and pedants and purists who sound off on normative absolutes and generally suck the fun out of this whole thing.  We've talked about them before, and at length, as being great personifications of "aleholes."  These are often people who start from a position of taking beer too seriously.  

When your approach and attitude to beer start to spill over into a desire to dictate to others how or what or when they should be drinking, then you need to take a hard look at what you're asserting to ask if it's reasonable.  

Am I a hypocrite for saying that drinking beer while doing yoga is dumb?  Maybe.  But I think I can defend it reasonably, so I'm still OK with doing it.  Yoga requires significant effort and concentration, so drinking while doing it makes as much sense to me as holding a footrace over an icy parking lot.  I'm not telling you not to do it - I'm saying I think it's a really inconvenient way to drink beer (if that's what you want to do) and a poor way to do yoga (if that's what you want to do).  Why not just go to a yoga class and then go drink beer afterward?

But, for example, if I say that if you're drinking a beer that's a few degrees above or below its optimum serving temperature that therefore you're doing it wrong, then I'm now entering a different arena - that's not just sharing an opinion, it's imposing a standard and actively judging people that don't hew to it.  That's wrong, and when I do it I hope people point it out.

You're Not Taking It Seriously Enough

OK, so what about the people who don't take it seriously enough?  They're out there, too.  Our "beer yoga" people are probably in that category.  

Here's the thing: making good beer is a challenging endeavor undertaken by people who (usually) care a lot about what they do, and they do it knowing that it's almost certainly not going to make them rich.  The Jim Koch's of the world are rare.  Most people in brewing know that the way to make a small fortune in the beer world is simple: start with a large fortune (rimshot).  

When you treat their work as a trendy prop, they might be grateful you bought it in the first place, but it's still kinda disrespectful.  Craft beer has fought long and hard to get to where it is, often against competitors that use ethically (and, sometimes, legally) questionable practices to fend off legitimate competition.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a craft beer-themed fundraiser for your nonprofit or host a "beer tasting party" for your non-beery friends - I'm saying that you shouldn't be doing it so that you can make fun of the "hipster in the work shirt and beard" that is your stereotypical image of a craft brewer/drinker.

I used to joke about yoga, that it was just stretching and laying (hell, there's a yoga pose that's literally called corpse pose where you lay flat on your back).  Then I tried it, and it kicked my ass for a little while.  It made me realize that I was being a bit of a dick about it, even if I wasn't making fun of people who did yoga, maliciously and mercilessly mocking their efforts.  I was just being dismissive and (mentally) treating them like dilettantes who were just engaging in a trendy hobby - and while, almost certainly, some were, a lot weren't, and what they're doing deserves our respect even if we don't share their enthusiasm.

The Balance Point

So where's the balance point?  After all, we're talking beer and yoga, both of which care about balance.  

I think it's here: don't let your attitude about beer (or just about anything, really) be either a cudgel or a punchline.  If you're browbeating people with it, you're taking it too seriously.  If you're (even passively) mocking people with it, you're not taking it seriously enough.  

And for those who are (inevitably) going to criticize this as being "obvious," I just have to say that I don't think it is.  Most often, people say something like, "yeah, duh - we know 'too far' when we see it."  Years of experience in/around this world have shown me that those on either side of this divide very, very often do NOT know "too far" when they see it.  

A modest suggestion: be a little more self-critical.  Err to the middle.  We'll all be a bit better off for it, I think.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm literally going to go do yoga before writing an article about becoming a certified beer judge.

Namaste (which is Sanskrit for "Keep it Simple").

JJW

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Unqualified Success: Brewer Knowledge, Ignorance, and Quality

It can be alarming, the things we don't know.  

When I get a story idea for Beer Simple, I usually whip out my phone and make a note.  Sometimes this happens in the middle of talking to someone (sorry).  Sometimes it happens because the someone I'm talking to is a brewer.  And sometimes it happens because the someone I'm talking to is a brewer that doesn't seem to know that much about brewing.

Let me explain.  One of the running notes on my phone is titled, "Things brewers don't know."  I've been keeping it for about six months now, and in that time I've been noting responses to homebrew club meeting Q&As, casual conversations, and interviews with pro brewers...and it's made me a bit concerned.  

Ignorance is bliss, right?  Wrong.  Ignorance costs.  It costs us because we might not know what that brewer doesn't know, and we get flawed beer.  It costs them because they don't know how to make it better.  It costs craft beer because every time someone drinks a not-great craft beer they might just decide it's a fad that doesn't justify its reputation for quality.  

And the problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

A Short List of Things (Some) Brewers Don't Know

Below is a brief list of things that I've personally heard/read professional brewers get wrong.  Those who brew will spot some of the flaws right away - and many of you, even those that don't brew, would still know the answers to these questions.

  • The volume of a barrel of beer
  • What Alpha Acid Percentage refers to
  • What esters and phenols taste like (and assuming they're the same, like people who don't know what gluten is but are deeply concerned about it)
  • What clarifying agents are, and/or how they work
  • What IBU, or SRM, or OG stand for
  • And, perhaps my favorite, what beer they're brewing right then.  I swear, I wish I was making that one up.

Let me state right out of the gate that you don't necessarily need to know the answers to these questions to be a great brewer.  At least one of these fairly-intro-level errors was made by someone whose brewery I consider to be above-average.  But that's the exception, not the rule.  

Most of the contributors to my (not so) little list are making thoroughly nondescript or bad beer.  Now, I know that many of you will react with the standard line of, "Well, people just won't buy it then, and they'll go out of business!"  For reasons I've outlined before, I don't buy that.  And even if it's true, it may not address what is likely a big part of the root problem.

The Thinning of the Brewer Herd

There are too many breweries out there, and not enough qualified brewers to service them.

The growth in the number of breweries in the US is well-documented, and even if it's due to level off (as may be true with the number of homebrewers in the US, according to at least one measure), the number of breweries quadrupled in the last decade.  Each one needs at least one brewer, and most use more than one.  

When I talk to brewery owners/operators about challenges they face, one of the most common is finding qualified brewers.  I live just across the river from a place called Phoenixville, Pennsylvania - population, about 16,000.  It is also home to four breweries either currently operating or soon to open, with two others rumored to be considering an expansion into the town.  That works out to more than one brewery per 3,000 residents.  

Now, let's pretend for a second that those new brewery owners/operators are qualified and competent: the fact that they're working at new (rather than existing) breweries still means that there's strain on the talent pool.  

The success and growth of craft beer might end up being a major challenge to itself.  Even an increase in output might create problems, but we're seeing an increase not only in depth, but in breadth.  More breweries, and expanding breweries.  

Forget selling it.  This isn't about market saturation, per se.  Who's going to brew all of this beer?

Book Learnin' and OJT

At the risk of sounding elitist (which I know many of you are more than happy to point out to me), the best option is probably to encourage every person who tells you they're considering opening a brewery to attend a formal course of instruction.  Or, if you're the one who dreams of making a living making beer, then take yourself out for a beer and talk about it with yourself.

There are a number of long-standing programs (run out of places like Siebel and the American Brewers Guild), and an increasing number of newer college-based programs.  I have no idea what their enrollment is like - I tried, but they don't seem to publish annual enrollment data! - but I'm concerned, based on anecdotal evidence, that it's not nearly high enough.  

And more to the point, the breweries that I (and others) think most highly of are usually employing well-credentialed brewers and technical staff; I'm talking people with degrees from Ivy League universities and multi-year fermentation science programs.  And my list of "Holy Mother of God that's terrible" breweries includes not a one run by someone with good brewing education credentials: all seem to be "self-taught" and proud of it.  Education certainly seems to be a good predictor of quality.

Practical knowledge matters, too, of course, and starting at the bottom in a brewery is a good way to learn.  It's problematic, though, that some are just jumping right into opening a brewery because they're effectively cheating themselves out of a proper apprenticeship.  OJT (On the Job Training) can be costly when you're running your own show, and you may not have the time to learn.  Worse still is when you're selling your mistakes.

One local brewpub recently closed its doors in part because it was selling sub-par beer, produced by a system they couldn't properly control yet (though interestingly enough, the consensus among the owners was that the real problem was that they lacked parking and couldn't get enough purely-local foot traffic - I repeat, we may be keeping sub-standard breweries alive through sentimentality).  That's no way to learn - that's just a way to lose money and build a sullied reputation.

Why It Matters

Craft beer as a whole won't compete effectively with wine, cocktails, and big beer if it has spotty quality.  It will just be able to fake it for a while.  Once conventional wisdom turns, though, and the public collectively determines that craft breweries aren't meeting their own standards, then it will be virtually impossible to get that reputation back, and all craft breweries will suffer.

Instead of thinking "quality," they'll think "mediocrity."

Instead of thinking "valuable," they'll think "expensive."

Instead of thinking "caring," they'll think "sloppy."

Instead of thinking "artisanal," they'll think "pretentious."

That's a turn I don't want to see.  I worry it's already happening.  And think of how much faster it will occur when the "craft" breweries acquired by the big brewers are producing beer that's consistently better than some significant percentage of actual craft breweries - buying decisions by consumers are heavily influenced by the predictable quality of what they're buying, and if there's one thing that the big brewers understand, it's consistency.

We don't want to lose that fight.

Encourage your brewing friends to be experts, not just practitioners.  The beer you save might be your own.

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).

 


Soured: Craft Beer's Misplaced Obsession With Bugs and How to Deal With It

I like sour beer.  Hell, there are sours that I love (I'm lookin' at you, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Nodding Head Berliner). But craft beer, you've gone too far.  You're obsessed. I also happen to know that in many cases you don't even want to do it.  But you've clearly bought into the sour beer trend hard, and it's starting to irritate (I almost said "bug") me.  

This isn't, "oh, everyone loves sour beers so I need to be all post-modern and say I hate them" time.  I'm not writing this because I want to poke fun at trends to show how edgy I am (I'm not).  I'm writing it because a lot of you brewers are making these and, well, they're not good.  Your batting average on sours sucks.  Sure, some of you are great at them - but you're a very small minority.

The rest of you should probably knock it off.  It's might hurt your brewery, and it's definitely wasting your time.

In the meantime, I'd also like to talk to you drinkers about a reasonable approach to drinking sour beers.

So, a little something for everyone this week!

The Trouble with Sours

If you're a brewer these days, you probably want (and need) to stand out, for purely economic reasons if nothing else.  So you put together your lineup, and identify a "workhorse" beer that'll pay the bills while you brew your passion projects and more-interesting beers.  So why sour beers?  Because you love them, right?  Wrong.

I just got back from the National Homebrewers Conference, and the Opening Night Kickoff Party features pro brewers.  When I asked those who had a sour why they brewed it and why they brought it, not one said anything about their love of the flavors and complexities of sour beer, or the challenge of making them.  They all said some variation on "they're a way to get attention" or "because people kept asking me whether I had one."

OK, I can buy that.  Peer pressure plus marketing utility can equal a powerful incentive.  The trouble is that sours are hard beers to make.  Even if you know that, you still might mess yours up.  And once you do, are you going to dump a beer that, because of the sluggishness of Brett or the contact time needed in that barrel, took you six months to a year to make?  

I doubt it.  You might not even notice, depending on how familiar you are with sours.  And even if you do, I think you'll serve it anyway.  

Soured

The sour beer I'm drinking these days isn't good.  When sours were much more rare in the marketplace, I'd say that three out of four were definitely worth a try, and even that fourth was usually good-but-not-what-I-wanted.  

Today?  Well, I drank between 15 and 20 sours between Thursday and Friday and...one.  One was a good beer.  The mass of them were adequate, but not really something I'd want to drink a pint of (and I certainly wouldn't order them again).  Two were downright awful and got poured immediately after provoking a gag.  Now, to be fair, about half of them were home brews and half were pro brews, but as a preponderance of "quality" the homebrewed versions were better (and there was one "gagger" from each gaggle).  

Those concerns a couple of weeks ago about brewer quality?  Yeah - amplify those times ten when we're talking sour beers.

Sours are hard to make.  The microbiota are less-predictable, the process is longer, and most brewers are pairing these beers with fruit and wood and who knows what else which also increases the degree of difficulty.  

My advice?  Don't do it.  You risk turning off a large pool of prospective customers for the sake of satisfying a few beer geeks that were attracted to nothing more than the novelty of that sour.  Don't chase a dream of long lines awaiting your next bottle release of an impossibly complicated sour.

A Rudyard Kipling Moment

It's time to do a little allowance-making for their doubting, too (see the poem "If - "). 

Because the best beer I had at the conference, all week, homebrewed or not, was a sour.  A sour from Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co., to be precise.  It was a sour Saison whose German-ish name I can't remember [UPDATE: It's "Kleinevriend," and it's Dutch!] and isn't listed on their website yet, and it was incredible.  Moreover, a number of other people told me the same.

So does that mean I'm wrong, and sours are a great hook?  Does it mean that maybe the real issue here is that the flavor profile of sours is idiosyncratic and tuned to particular palates and one person's Orval is someone else's Goat Urine?  

Maybe.  But I think that it's much more likely that breweries like NCBC are just good at what they do, and so their sours are good, too.  

An Approach to Sours for Beer Drinkers

In any case, let's take a moment and consider some advice for navigating the sometimes-troubling world of sour beer.

Stick to breweries that you already know make good beer.  Don't take too many fliers on "never heard of them" breweries' sour beers, even if your super-beer-geeky friend says you "just have to try it."

Don't buy into barrel-aged sours (with some exceptions).  They're bad more often than they're good, in my experience. Barrel-aging adds a whole new universe of ways to muck up a beer that's already hard enough to make.  Your established Lambic breweries are probably worth giving the benefit of the doubt, but if it's from a new-ish place and/or is bragging about the kind of barrel (i.e., Bourbon Barrel Wild Ale), then maybe try their Berliner first.

Don't believe the style labeling.  I'm not sure that most brewers have even had the "style" of beer they're emulating.  Every Gose I drink these days is just a Berliner Weisse - it's an intensely sour pale wheat beer - or it's a salt bomb.  Neither is accurate, and while I love the idea of a Gose revival (or any endangered beer style, really) it's baffling to me why brewers bother calling them that if they're, you know, not that.  

Keep it simple (duh).  Beers that are a "soured ____________ " where that blank is some style you already might recognize are usually better than the generic "Wild" beers.  A "Soured Whatever" is probably just the base beer plus lactic acid, however derived, which is easier to get right, because it's simpler.

Trust fruit.  I'm not usually one for fruit beers, but for some reason in simple sours, it seems to work well.  Cherry Gose.  Apricot Berliner Weisse.  Mango Sour Saison.  Since fruits often impart tartness or acidity on their own, it's a natural pairing.  

Share.  If this is a bottle you own, open it with others.  These things are often good in small doses, but terrible in larger quantities.  

Experiment - but moderate your expectations.  If this is a new beer from a new brewery, don't judge them too harshly.  Give their Pilsner a try before you write them off for good.  Remember, this brewer might not even have really wanted to make that beer.

Others, I'm sure, have other strategies, but I'm confident that these won't hurt you.  Oh, and consider Tums to avoid "sour stomach."  The chewable kind seem to work well.

Moving On

Sour beer obsession might just be a fad, and I certainly hope it is.  When it passes, those who care about it will keep doing it, while those who were groupthought into it can move on to something else - and those that care are probably the ones doing it best. 

It isn't that I want sours to go away - I just want them to be better.  I don't want to keep wasting $6 to $36 for a pint or bottle of a bad beer that took years to make.  Dare to dream?

I've heard that Craft Lagers will be the next big thing.

Now there's something to dream about...

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).