The perfect response I expected The Pour Fool to offer. This is one manifesto for the preservation of a meaning behind the term craft beer.
This post could probably run on to book length, with as much as my stunned brain – abruptly informed of the sale of Elysian Brewing to AB/InBev yesterday as I was busy with something else – has churned up in the hours (many of them sleepless and dead quiet) since I received this…this gut-punch.
Seattle’s Elysian Brewing has been sold to the Great Satan of the beer world, Belgium/Brazil’s AB/InBev, a soulless, bean-countin’, avaricious, cut-throat, amoral international conglomerate that has gobbled up many of the world’s great breweries and now has its sights set on the craft beer movement here in the US.
For those who want a basic primer on how I feel about AB getting its malignant tentacles into ANY part of what has been, for 30 years, the most uplifting, soulful, life-affirming, humane, and decent business segment in American history, this link will take you to…
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My first disclaimer for this post is that I live in the panhandle of Texas, a place that is probably in the top 20% of under-served craft beer markets. I can get Deschutes at the liquor store, but I can’t get many of the great craft breweries selling like hotcakes in the Austin metro area. That said, I am passionate about beer and brewing, I read a lot about the industry in my day-to-day, and was therefore surprised and upset by the news of the sale of Elysian Brewing Co. to Anheuser-Busch.
Second disclaimer: I have never had any of Elysian’s beer. In fact I know next to nothing about this company. What I do know I learned today while reading various reports about the sale. I know that Elysian is a popular brewery in Seattle, WA and that they have multiple pub locations. I know that they brew around 50,000 barrels a year (right now – this will no doubt grow tremendously with AB InBevs purchase). And I also know that a lot of people love their beers, as evidenced by a fairly substantial number of comments on Facebook, Twitter and a smattering of craft beer websites.
Third disclaimer: I’ve never had any beers from 10 Barrel Brewing either. This is only relevant because AB purchased 10 Barrel only two months ago, and the same hornets nest of opinion was stirred up then, and for good reason.
It’s interesting when this kind of thing happens in the craft beer industry, if only because, at this point in the industry’s lifespan, it has happened relatively few times. The trend began for all intents and purposes with the sale of Goose Island in 2011, also to AB. Just last year (2014) AB purchase two fairly small regional craft breweries – Blue Point in New York and 10 Barrel in Oregon – before just announcing (today) that is is purchasing Elysian Brewing in Washington. The nature of these purchases seems to imply that more will come, especially in light of the fact that the beer market is shrinking while craft beer is growing. A lot.
The news of these sales elicits essentially two opinions. The first is equivalent to a shoulder shrug. Lots of consumers of craft beer, even educated ones, are ambivalent about these purchases by a major beer corporate conglomerate. As long as the quality of the beers doesn’t falter, and as long as distribution improves, and maybe the price even comes down a bit, they’re happy. Hey, business is business, they say. And what business do we have telling Elysian or 10 Barrel how best to run their buisiness?
The other reaction is one of a highly personal affront. How could they do this to us? Don’t they give a damn about their beer? Don’t they care about me? This reaction is what I would call the more authentically passionate reaction from the more passionate, if not downright zealous, craft beer lover. The craft beer lover whose knee-jerk reaction to the news of another AB purchase understands that the craft industry is necessarily about small companies with big passion, and the idea of a profits-first asshole coming in to gobble up that passion is not just unthinkable, it’s personally insulting!
Now, I tend to be a middle-of-the-road guy on a lot of issues that elicit wildly passionate responses from two different ends of a reaction spectrum. However, on the question of “What’s wrong with AB buying these craft breweries?” I have a ready answer of: Everything. And my answer is not the product of a craft beer ideal that involves shoveling mash tuns by hand or bearded young men tossing kegs into an old van. Not that there’s anything wrong with ideals. I mean, these ideals essentially built the craft beer industry that we love and enjoy. No, my answer is a product of a very realistic survey of the last century or so of business practices of AB and it’s ilk, and what I know about these corporations is that they could give a damn about ideals. What they care about is market share, sales, profits and the status quo.
So here is how you should figure out what your reaction should be: ask yourself if you care about the status quo. Because whether you realize it or not, the status quo is Coors Light, Budweiser and every other conglomerate Big Beer Brand you can name. Poor choice on the beer aisle and flavorless beer is the status quo. Craft beer isn’t even 10% of the American beer market by volume, and AB would just as soon turn this trend backwards as figure out a way to profit off of its seemingly inevitable growth. Passion, ingenuity, quirkiness, creativity, innovation in beer style and flavor – these things come about because a lot of brewers in this country are idealists who can’t stand the status quo. That is what AB InBev bought today, and what they will continue to try to buy in the days and years ahead. And be warned, their pockets are deep.
After reading this post from Ken Weaver at RateBeer – who is a great beer writer by the way – I was left to contemplate the space that craft beer currently inhabits in food culture. Beer has traditionally been a beverage of the proletariat, the rabble, the masses. The same could be said for wine, which has traditionally been the homegrown beverage of the masses, from the Mesopotamian to the Israelites to the Spanish and so on. Somewhere along the way wine was hijacked by the upper classes and turned into a beverage of privilege. I suspect the French were involved. Wine is now viewed as a classy if not outright snobbish beverage by the mass of Americans, something that you have to understand before you can enjoy it.
My fear over the last five years, as craft brewers hone their skills and the industry grows at a rapid pace, is that beer is on pace to become the next class beverage. This is where Ken’s post comes in. In reviewing an Imperial IPA he describes flavors as varied and absurd as “tangerine,” “creamsicle,” “fresh cut flowers,” “grape jam” and, unnacountably, “pith.” Now you may be smarter than me, but I had to look up “pith” in the dictionary, which wasn’t a very helpful exercise (the first definition: “soft or spongy tissue in plants or animals, in particular”). I’m still not sure what he was tasting, but it sounds like it shouldn’t have been in his beer.
First the obvious question: where the hell does this guy get off saying he tastes grape jam in this beer? I don’t know how you react to that kind of highfalutin description of taste, but I was a little pissed off. Why? Because, dammit, it’s beer. Granted it may have a lot going for it in terms of aromatics and flavor, but when you start describing the taste of a beer the way wine snobs do – and especially when you use words like “pith” that seem well-placed and obscure enough to exclude certain readers – you’ve lost me. Me, a craft beer lover and verified “geek,” “snob,” “enthusiast” or whatever. You’ve lost me.
This is where craft beer is headed, though; it’s going highbrow. Do you know how many individuals posted reviews on RateBeer.com for this beer that Ken tasted? Thirteen in eight days, and almost all of them as obnoxiously over-the-top as Ken’s review. It’s like these guys (and I’m assuming they’re all guys, but I haven’t confirmed this) are trying to one-up each other on how poignantly they can detail the finer aspects of this…beer. One guys says the aroma is of “overripe mangosteen.” The hell? He had to switch glasses halfway through the tasting to get “a better head and aroma.” Dude, you’re killing me. But he was only the first reviewer. Another fellow tastes peppermint. And the word “dank” comes up a lot. I take it the beer tastes and/or smells like my basement?
My hope is that we aren’t headed down the path that wine took. And if I ever see anyone sampling beer at a festival and spitting out of their mouths (unless their a judge, I mean, those guys would get hammered if they didn’t spit) I might slap them. It’s beer people; it’s the drink that brings us together. Stop turning it into another excuse to exclude the uninitiated.
About a week ago I was in my basement pouring myself a fresh pint of hand-crafted beer when I noticed something odd. My most recent five gallon batch of beer, a dark and chocolate-y stout, had an unnattractive scum formation on the top of it, what we brewers refer to as a pellicle. This is the tell-tale sign of an infection by bacteria or wild yeast; in other words, not good. My stout, I thought, is ruined, which was a huge bummer since I don’t have anything dark on tap right now. A couple of days later I was describing this discovery to the co-owner of our local home brewing supply shop and his ears perked up. He began trying to convince me that I was onto something, and went into some detail about the effects of particular bacteria and wild yeast on beer flavors. His was an excitement born of a passion for sour beers, that unpredictable breed of beer rapidly growing in popularity among craft beer geeks. Mine was simply a bewilderment that one could have use for soured beer.
Unrelated but related, just today I was thinking about American lagers. Those who are familiar with the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) may also be aware that there is an entire style category devoted to light lagers (style category #1, as a matter of fact). The first American lager style in this category: Lite American Lager. Yes, that bane of every craft beer lover’s existence is style #1A in the list of beer styles maintained by the preeminent beer judging organization in the world. But as bad as Lite American Lager is, the other American lagers in this category aren’t a whole lot better – at least not to me. When the description for a beer states that “strong flavors are a fault,” I’ll pass on a sample, thank you very much.
These two experiences are related in that they got me to thinking about what constitutes bad beer. When I talk to my craft beer friends about beer, we all tend to assume we share the same definition of bad. Bad beer is beer make by Budweiser or Coors or Miller. Bad beer is a skunky bottle of Corona, or a tasteless can of Coors Light. Corporate beer is bad beer, especially anything that might find itself described by the first three styles listed under BJCP style category #1.
Interestingly sour beer – which has become the darling beer “category” in the booming craft beer industry – is by definition “bad beer.” Sour beer is beer that has had microbial life other than cultivated brewer’s yeast introduced for the express purpose of producing unique, odd and potentially repulsive flavors, most of which are sour in nature. What makes this so odd is that we brewers typically go through a tremendous amount of effort to keep these beer-souring critters out of our beer. This is why most brewers offer up their first three tips of brewing as one and the same: sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. This is why a majority of the effort involved in brewing beer is related to cleaning and sanitizing. If you as a brewer do chance to get an infection of brettanomyces (wild yeast) or lactobacillus (souring bacteria) or something even “worse”, your oatmeal stout is going to taste like shit.
Or is it? It just may be that the very beer you thought went “bad” actually went “good” in a completely unexpected and unpredictable way. This is where the definition of bad beer gets tricky. To craft beer lovers, corporate beer is bad because it’s low on taste, or big on tastes that we just don’t like (e.g. skunky, corn-like, etc.). However, corporate beer is brewed by experts in the industry who posses amazingly sophisticated quality control programs and equipment. If any beer can be said to be good, i.e. not contaminated, it’s the high volume American “lights.” But hand a barrel-aged sour ale to a Bud Light fan and see if he doesn’t immediately identify that your beer has gone bad. That $18.00 bottle you couldn’t wait to get your hands on may well be the worst beer he’s ever tasted.
So what is bad beer? Intriguingly (and frustratingly) this is a truly subjective thing. This should be obvious, I know. In fact, the more I think about it the more obvious it is. Of course taste is subjective; we don’t all eat or enjoy the same foods, and beer is no different in this regard. What’s interesting about “good” and “bad” as it applies to beer, though, is that organizations like the BJCP exist for the primary purpose of helping us identify what’s good and what’s bad. We’re not talking about a bunch of paunch-bellied drunks swilling beer saying, “Yep, this one’s good”. We’re talking about serious research, both gustatory and historical, all condensed to a compendium of beer and flavor information and spread through a large network of beer enthusiasts and professionals, all dedicating their time to promoting “good” beer. So given that all of this effort has gone into defining what makes beer good, it seems like some of the subjectivity would be removed from the process. Granted, the BJCP also lists some sour beers (style category #17), but here again there are parameters of some sort, and a finite list of styles that are sour. The craft beer industry is not, by and large, limiting its sour offerings to lambics, gueze and Flander’s Red.
Okay, so if taste is subjective and therefore bad beer is in the tongue of the beholder, what’s the point of writing a blog post about it? I guess that for my part I think it’s important for craft beer lovers to recognize a couple of things. The first is that, just because you don’t like a beer doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s place. When you get past the obnoxious marketing and the fact that light beer is essentially tasteless, you realize that there are some damn fine brewers making this stuff. It’s not an easy feat to produce millions of barrels of lager with such flavor consistency; it’s actually damn complicated. And on a hot summer’s day when the lawn work nearly sucked your body dry you sweat so much, the Champagne of Beers may be the best beverage you’ve ever tasted. Alternatively sour beers are not always good. Frankly some of them are nasty, unless you love the taste of straight vinegar. However, for people who like that sort of thing, $18 is not too much to pay for a beer gone “bad.” In the end you should just drink what you like, support good breweries and don’t be afraid to waste a little time debating what makes beer good or bad. Just don’t expect to be right.
On a recent trip to a local restaurant that specializes in craft beer, I was struck by their draft offerings. The bartender offered me several samples of India Pale Ales; of the dozen or so taps they sported at least half were IPAs. I lined up three samples side by side, trying to discern which was which based on appearance, aroma and finally taste. Was the one on the left the Rebel IPA? Or was that one the Happy Camper IPA? And which one was the third IPA this guy gave me? Aside from the senselessness of offering three or four beers that, while different, are not really discernible from one another, the time has come to move beyond the IPA.
The IPA is hands down the most popular beer style in the craft beer industry. As consumers grow to like the flavors and aromas that come from hops, especially new and distinct American varieties, they demand hoppier beers and more of them. As large corporate brewing companies see this trend and covet the market share they’re losing to the craft industry, they begin developing hoppier beers, or protecting their supplies through contracting arrangements that only well-funded companies can make. The consequence? Hop prices soar and supplies begin to dwindle.
First I’m going to play out the nightmare scenario for the industry. Craft brewers lose access to (or can’t afford) their preferred hops, the ones that got their IPA to the top of the national “best beer” lists. Supplies of these great craft beers stall or dip. The craft beer industry growth slows as the growth of its most popular style slows, and the biggest brewers who still have the cash or the hop contracts start making up the slack. Who wins in this scenario? Hop growers and distributors, for one. Also the large breweries win because they have the hops and/or the cash. Bearing in mind that the likes of MillerCoors and ABinBev are buying up popular regional breweries (Goose island, for example), these brands and their hoppy beers are the least likely to suffer. The most likely to suffer? The newest breweries; the breweries in planning; the small, lightly funded local guy who could make great beer in your backyard if only he could get his hands on some (affordable) hops.
It takes, on average, fifteen years to get a new variety of hops to market. This includes the intensive labors of developing new varieties, growing them to maturity, testing their characteristics for desirability (oil content, hardiness, aroma and flavor, etc.), and getting them into the hands of commercial growers to plant and cultivate to maturity. So new varieties are not going to alleviate the dearth of hops in the current market. Then the savior of our industry must be existing varieties, and increased acreage, right? That’s probably the best route; but, according the USDA, the only major hop growing regions of the country are in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and from the 2013 harvest, only about 10% more hops have been strung for harvest this year. With the craft beer industry growing in volume by double digits for the last few years, the writing may well be on the wall for the IPA.
For hopheads, no doubt, this is a terrible idea, but the truth is the IPA style is not going away. In fact, it may not even begin to fade. As long as craft beer consumers are willing to shell out more money each year for their favorite lupulin-laced ale, they can have all that they want. No, what the rise in hop prices and the reduction in supplies most likely means is that the IPA will almost disappear from the lineup of any and every new brewery. And this is probably more significant than the potential implosion of the IPA style, because it could equal the slowing of the growth of the industry – if not in terms of total industry share of the market, than in the quantity of breweries nationally. Think about it. If the most popular style in craft beer is the IPA, the most probable new beer to introduce for a new brewery is a hoppy one. But if hops are either too expensive or too hard to come by, this option may not be feasible, which leaves new brewers with a problem: do I enter the market with a less popular style and risk fewer sales, or do I hold off on opening my brewery?
These could be the first notes of an implosion of the industry, and it’s all our fault. As craft beer lovers demanding ever hoppier beers, we’ve brought this problem on ourselves. Imagine it: no more Pliny the Elder. No more Heady Topper. No more Two-Hearted Ale. Imagine a world where a Double IPA costs you an arm, a leg and your firstborn child. Hey you, put that kid down, you’re not getting my Pliny!
I’m obviously being dramatic, but the real consequences of our hop binge are going to come home to roost and they’re going to roost over and shit on the smallest and newest breweries. And this is both a damn shame and a tremendous opportunity. For my part, as a lover of maltier styles and session beers, I hope it spurs craft brewers on to more creative heights, and, for the love of Ninkasi, to beer styles other than the IPA. I hope it changes the landscape of craft beer to include neglected styles, historical or antiquated styles, and styles unheard of up to now. Maybe in turn we consumers will broaden our horizons and learn that there is a lot more to beer than hops, and a lot more to craft beer than the IPA.