On the Road: How Every Trip Has Become a Beercation

desert-2340326_1280.jpg

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

The Virtue of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

What to Do?

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

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

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

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

Universal

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.

JJW

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


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

site-1561769_1280.jpg

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

"What do you think about this one?" 

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

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

It was Victory Brewing Co.

Wait, what?

Optimum Size Theory

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

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

That really got me thinking. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.

JJW

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