Craft Beer

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).

 


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

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).


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).


Love is Blind: Perceptual Screens and Beer Evaluation (Christmastime Edition)

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There's a certain IPA that hits the market in the late-fall of every year.  It has a red label, features a snow-covered cabin, and is festooned with poinsettias.  I buy it every year.  I can't wait to pop open a few bottles of it to celebrate the assorted holidays of the season.  I love, love, love this beer. 

I honestly don't know if it's any good or not.  

Why?  Because I love it.  

A Tenuous Relationship With Reality

Human beings have a highly conditional, tenuous, perverted relationship with "reality."  The perceptual screens and stereotypes and blind spots we employ to make sense of a "bright, fuzzy world" (to quote one social scientist) and navigate it efficiently (if imperfectly) mean that we don't evaluate things as they are.  We don't "see and then define - we define, and then we see."  

The same logic that makes evaluations of politics and society so thorny applies to beer evaluation, and for the same reasons.  It's a noisy, crowded marketplace out there for beer.  We, as individuals, employ stereotypes and heuristics (informational shortcuts) to make sense of the craft beer world, and in doing so we distort it.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something we should be aware of, since a common in-subculture sport of craft beer folk is the sharing our personal evaluations of the beers we consume.  We wrongly describe this as what we "think" about a beer.  If only - instead, what we're really sharing is a combination of things (what we feel, what we perceive, what we assume, and, yes, also what we think) that lead to what we conclude about the quality and/or desirability of a particular beer or brewery.

We all drink in the same world - but we think and feel in different ones.

Draw a Line

I try to take this approach to chatting about beer quality: the stronger my preferences, the more I condition them when making recommendations to others.  That way, any firm impressions (the literal, etymological definition of "stereotype") I pass on are qualified by an equal-in-magnitude, fair-warning communication that they're based on my acknowledged biases, for better or worse.

Let's go back to my seasonal IPA.  Since I know I love it, when asked about what seasonal beers I might recommend, I have no problem at all saying, "I love _____________ IPA!," because I then follow it up with (as I have above), "but I don't know if it's any good or not."  

What this does is draw a clear line between preferences and quality.  If I have no particular feelings about a style (let's say, for Cream Ale), then I don't, when sharing an evaluation, hesitate beyond the normal acknowledgment that beer evaluation has an unavoidable element of subjectivity.  But when I know I have a marked preference or prejudice about a beer, or style, or brewery, I acknowledge that whatever I'm saying should be taken with a grain of salt because I'm viewing it through a glass, darkly (and maybe literally).  

I'm reminded of this every year, about this time of year, when I look at that snow-covered cabin, and I'm glad for it.  It reminds me to be humble about making recommendations, evaluations, and judgments.  

After all - love is blind.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

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).

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In Praise of the Pounder: The Perfect Beer Package

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

THE POUNDER.

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

Keeping the Wolves Outside the Door

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

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

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

If 12 is good, 16 is better

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

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

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

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

The Odd Insanity of Beer Buyers

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

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

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

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

Pound It

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

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

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Beer's Bizarre Bad Attitude

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What's up with some brewers' bad attitude?

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

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

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

No Returns

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

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

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

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

No Rules

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

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

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

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

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

No Feedback

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

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

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

No Choice

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

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

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

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

No Reason

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.

JJW

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).

 


Session to the Rescue: How Craft Beer Can Shrink to Greatness

Despite being a massive beer nerd, I'm very much a lightweight, which makes me a natural fan of session beers (those at about 4.5% ABV or lower, though the definition has some flex in it).  I sometimes struggle to find lighter beers on bar tap lists, which I can understand, to an extent: there's definitely a market for big, unique beers, and a beer bar wants to have the kind of edgy things that draw a crowd.  What surprises me, though, is that bars and breweries don't seem to be seeing the major economic upside to offering more session beers.

This is all the more relevant in the context of last week's article: there is currently more beer being produced per drinker than ever before, and that market is probably shrinking even as production and the number of producers increases.  

Session beer to the rescue!  And it's good for everyone - brewers, bar owners, and beer drinkers.

Same Alcohol, More Product, Better Beer, More Money

I have a sack of grain.  That grain contains a fixed amount of starch, which produces a fixed amount of sugar, which is fermented into a fixed amount of alcohol.  If I make a 9% Tripel or Double IPA with it, I get some number of pints out of that sack.  If I make a 4.5% Belgian Blonde or Session IPA, I get twice that number of pints out of the same sack.  

Bought a beer lately?  I'm assuming so (and if not, PLEASE comment below and tell me why you read Beer Simple if you haven't ordered a beer lately!).  If you have, you might notice that you pay about as much for that 4.7% Kolsch as you do for the 7% IPA.  If you're a brewer, why wouldn't you make more of the cheaper beer?  The profit margin is almost certainly higher.  Lower ABVs also mean less sweetness to balance and higher hop utilization and easier-to-spot hops flavor and aroma, which means you're saving on hops in two different ways, too.  

Then there's the idea that you can sell a customer more than one.  I can drink a couple-three pints of English Bitter and still carry on a conversation about how much Arsenal sucks (sorry - English Premiere League season starts up this weekend - #COYS).  If I drink a pint of a certain Belgian Tripel (terrific beer) I feel like what I assume it feels like when you smoke too much peyote.  

Session beers are also a bit easier to brew.  As a practical matter, alcohol creates toxicity, and yeast don't actually like it that much.  As ABV increases, the challenge of brewing that beer goes up, as yeast tend to produce more off-flavors when they're pissed off.  Skilled brewers can still do it, of course, but it creates a higher degree-of-difficulty.  That's not to say session beers are a breeze to make, but at least that one variable is a little more friendly.

If you can't create more mouths to pour beer into, then a solid way forward is to increase the number of beers going into each mouth.  You can either encourage people to get more drunk, or just spread out that same alcohol across multiple pints.  Even marginal reductions in ABV would yield significant savings and increase sales.

Over the Bar, Not Under It

I don't own a bar, but if I did I think I know what my major concern would be: drunks.  I mean, you're selling alcohol, and when people drink they sometimes get drunk, and when they get drunk they sometimes fight, puke, or talk incessantly about Game of Thrones - and who wants that?

Increasing the availability of session beer means it's a product that you can not only sell more of (see above), but also that consumers can better dial-in their level of intoxication and lowers the probability of someone going overboard faster than they realize, thanks to that 12% barrel-aged Quad.

Wouldn't you rather send more beer over the bar than clean up the folks laying under it?  Fewer rowdy drunks (or more less-rowdy not-quite-drunks, to be accurate) also means a better environment, and more patrons, and more sales.  

Easy Does It

This is good for beer drinkers, too.  Lower ABV per beer probably means less alcohol consumed overall.  I assume that most of us order a more-or-less stable number of beers, dictated by the circumstance.  Out to dinner, Happy Hour, on a date, out with friends, picnic at the beer garden, and any number of other set-piece beer drinking situations tend to yield a certain number of pints ordered.  

More session beer might mean you add one to that tally, but you won't make up all of the alcohol unless you're drinking a lot more pints, and less alcohol is a good thing, health-wise.

I'm no physician (though I am a doctor...of the mind), but it's my understanding that alcohol can have some negative health impacts, which is why we should try to consume it in moderation.  One thing I definitely know, though, is that alcohol = calories, and lower ABV means fewer calories, other factors in the beer recipe being equal.  

Order more session beer.  Fewer calories, fewer hangovers, fewer long-term health risks (I think).  

Everybody Wins

This is one of those situations where everyone wins.  Yes, some beers use alcohol to great effect as a flavor, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that anyone is really noticing the difference between a 6% and 5% IPA.   

Brewers can save money in production.  Bars can increase profit margins.  And we consumers can drink more beer and less alcohol and fewer calories.  And Craft Beer as a phenomenon can buy itself some more time to figure out how this is all going to shake out.

Session to the rescue!

Keep it simple.

JJW

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).