Why Does The NYT Perpetuate A US Craft Fiction?

Stan linked to a NYT opinion piece by Steve Hindy who is correctly identified as “a founder and the president of Brooklyn Brewery and a member of the Brewers Association board of directors.” I think it struck me a little differently from Stan. Consider this:

…state laws continue to empower distributors to select brands and manage them however they want — selling those they choose to sell, while letting other brands sit in their warehouses. The only recourse is to sue, and many small breweries lack even a fraction of the resources needed to take on a big distributor in court. As a result, they’re stuck with the bad distributor, which severely hampers their ability to perform and grow as a business. Buy a small brewer a beer, and pretty soon he or she will be regaling you with war stories about fights with distributors…

See what’s going on? Small brewers. No discussion about the different effect regulations have on actual small brewers compared to big national craft brewers like Brooklyn and the other oft cited Dogfish Head. As the owner of Notch Brewing, Chris Loring, recently shared with Max, the interests of big national craft are very much at odds with the interests of actual small and local breweries. The opinion piece, as would be expected from its source, references nothing of that. Gripes about regulations from state to state are only a burden to those business folk whose aims include 18 wheel transportation and national advertising campaigns.

So, while the title of the bit is “Free Craft Beer!” it really could better be “Unleash The Opportunity For Brewers With Scale!” We know what would happen were this sort of shift to occur. We’ve seen it before. It happened in North America in the 1860s to 1890s. It wasn’t that laws were change so much as the railway established itself. All over Ontario many many small brewers making good beer were crushed when previously local brewers like Labatt and Carling out of the southwestern town of London got their casks out of their towns and into the province, the nation and then the world. Yes, that Labatt and that Carling. Prohibition did not close the breweries. Advantages of scale did. The wiping away of borders and other obstacles did. As you can read in the article “The Canadian Brewing Industry’s Reponse to Prohibition 1874-1916” by Matthew J Bellemy in Brewing History, there were 61 breweries in Ontario at the turn of the twentieth century. There were 49 in 1915 and 23 two years later. The strictest form of temperance law imposed locally came into force in 1916. Historically, it is clear that beer and brewing likes a few things like peace and a good growing season. It also likes oligopoly. Beer responds well to aggregation. We know that because all big beer was once small.

Actual small, local and well made beer is antagonistic to oligopolistic economic forces. Actual small batch beer made by actual small brewers is easily crushed. By perpetuating the idea that there is that one homogenous thing called “craft beer” and “small brewers” we ignore that big commercial brewing enterprises are different. We cover over the fact that intra-national importing brewers moving beer coast to coast in the US like Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Stone or Sierra Nevada pose as much or a greater danger to actual small brewers than Bud or – what ever is like Bud but not Bud – does. It is not wicked that this is the case… but it is a natural economic force. If you want to live in a world with brewers making good beer in every second town you may want to take what national and now exporting international craft argues with a healthy dose of skepticism. A healthy dose of skepticism actually pairs extremely well with actual small scale, local and good brewing.

Albany Ale: Not Served In Only The Best Places

Well, at least not in 1865, that is, according to this travel tale in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 June 1865 by name of “America in the Midst of War: Low Life in New York”:

The first “full-blooded” establishment we entered was many degrees noisier than the lager beer saloons. There was an atmosphere of roughness and rowdyism not to be mistaken. The same respectable and blue spectacled Germans were sawing away at the double bass or blowing lustily into brazen instruments in the orchestra; but little attention was paid to the music. There was much beer about, but it was not all lager. Philadelphia and Albany ale, and an especially nasty compound retailed in ginger beer bottles, and libellously called “Edinburgh ale” were plentiful; nor was a dreadful combination of turpentine and white rye whisky, falsely called “London Dock gin,” wanting. This colourless poison is brewed from I know not what, unless from the most inferior rye, but it forms the basis of much hell-broth, sold indifferently as gin and whisky. It tastes like camphine which has been racked through a cask full of Seven Dials “all sorts.” It is not unlike the Russian vodka; but it must be less pure, and consequently more unwholesome. In Canada it goes by the name of “fixed bayonets,” and is much affected by the military stationed there – in fact, overdoses of “fixed bayonets” have brought many a gallant, foolish British soldier to the halberts.

You know, one of the plainest effects of the writing the Ontario beer book with Jordan and diving back into the Albany’s beer history for that book with Craig is the sneaking suspicion that the temperance crowd of the second half of the 1800s not only had it exactly right but… we is them. No matter what your drinking habits are, I suspect none of you are drinking a hell-broth called fixed bayonets on your way to the halberts.

Halberts? No, me neither until now. Viva not drinking fixed bayonets on way to the halberts! Viva!! Viva!!! Errr… funny that I was no struck by this so much on the book with Max. By the way, a second installment of our excellent adventures through time and space is in the works. Short stories. Like the Hardy Boys series but with more… colourless poison.

Session 85: When I Drink Is There A Why?

Has Discontent Struck Good Beer In A Time of Plenty?

A little bird, or rather an email correspondent, who was present advised me that at the recent Craft Brewer Conference there was a closed session at which at least one well placed big-mid-sized Midwest brewer “sure made for good entertainment at the voting members session of the CBC- you know, the one the toss the media out for”. Apparently, unlike what is seen on the public sessions, issues like the asymmetrical effect of tax breaks and grants are creating divisions amongst those who would like you to believe that they sing all from the same hymnal… and, then, would like to sell you the hymnal so you can keep in tune, too. Interesting, then, to read about one implication arising from this sort of thing as illustrated by one particular expanding good beer market, Ashville NC, as reported today by Bill Night at The New School:

If the $9 Mil for New Belgium that Magee mentioned sounds like a lot to you, maybe you’ll be interested to find that New Belgium actually snarfed up $13 million in total from “the public trough”, as explained in this post on the blog Ashvegas. As far as I can tell, Sierra Nevada wasn’t quite as gluttonous, and only needed a little under $5 million to set up beer camp in North Carolina:

– State of North Carolina: $1M grant to New Belgium
– Buncombe County: $8.5M tax incentives to New Belgium
– City of Asheville: $3.5M tax incentives and infrastructure to New Belgium
– State of North Carolina: $1M grant to Sierra Nevada
– Henderson County: $3.75M tax incentives and infrastructure to Sierra Nevada

You know who should be really pissed about all that money? The small brewers who built Asheville up into Beer City USA.

Redistribution of wealth is tricky stuff and it does not help that those receiving are national craft millionaires even though sometimes it seems they would like us to think that they are hunting for sofa change to try to make payroll. But it does not stop there today as Harry Schuhmacher in the Beer Business Daily touches on more of the questions left unanswered after the recent conference. He discusses questions of tax policy as I discussed here the other day as well as badly made and overpriced craft – and even how succession planning leading to big money buyouts are all discussed. All important big issues that can leave a bad taste… sometimes by actually leaving a bad taste.

But, most interesting to me is the “S” word – smugness. Harry puts it succinctly: “I’ve met a few new craft brewers over the last year, and I get the sense lately that many think they invented beer.” A great direct line. I can’t, however, speak to the truth of it as, being trained in the law, I assume this is a phenomena that is woven throughout all business sectors so I don’t know whether this is new to beer or that the guard has been left down a bit recently. Yet the other sources mentioned above might be indicating that might well be the case. Where does all of this lead? Good beer did well in the recession, expanding market share as the economy took a hit. But that does not mean the industry is immune to all risk.

For me, big business is big business and will act as such. Lobbying and entitlement will benefit the largest most. But the time needs to come when US craft will stop trying to pretend all brewers are small start ups even if only to argue for financing opportunities which can benefit businesses of different scales. Beyond that, the risk of fatigue needs to be addressed – and not fatigue of flagship beers as Harry suggests though that is happening too. Craft beer is starting to act like pre-teen soccer league where everything and everyone is special. Every brewer gets the medal. Every one gets the treat at the end of the game. In the case of craft beer, the treat is unending increased prices and increased sales forever and ever, amen. Nothing works that way.

Change will come and will likely be unexpected. Change may also be brought upon oneself. How would a brewer best situate itself to withstand a shift away from these present times of plenty? Admitting opening how things actually are might be a start.

Who Is Afraid Of Facts On Beer Bottles?

Interesting if light-ish article from the publication The Drinks Business on the question of labeling beer with their caloric content:

According to public health minister Anna Soubry, officials have been in talks with the drinks industry about the possible inclusion of calorie content on labels. Ministers are hoping that displaying the calorie content in beers, wines and spirits could encourage those who are watching their weight to drink less. Most manufacturers already include information on units of alcohol on labels in a voluntary agreement with the Government. A recent study by the Drink Aware Trust has linked the large amount of calories in alcoholic drinks to people being overweight and obese.

Makes perfect sense to me. Every box of crackers in the cupboard tells me how many calories are in a handful already. I can look up the calories in meats and other ingredients because they are fairly standard measure as these things go. But a beer is not a beer is not a beer. Who knows what people are sticking in there and what it means over the long term? Some of the big bombs out there might as well be mugs of piping hot icing and should be handled with great care. And the drive to have more proper sessionable low alcohol beers might get a kick if the truth about stronger stuff were wildly known. Makes sense.

And why stop there? One thing that drives me a bit nutty are abstract standards like the UK’s absolutely silly use of “units” as a measure of alcoholic strength. What we need on a bottle is the actual ml of pure alcohol. A 500 ml can of 7% of semi-DIPA has 35 ml. Two of these innocent pals are well within the ball park of a 750 ml corked top bottle of that swell 10% beer but far less, err, red flaggy. Is it too much to ask for a universal standard based on a standard that is basically universal?

Is there pressure to keep this sort of information away from the beer buying public? Or do you actually just not want to know. Are they, like price, things of no interest to the… umm… passionate?

Are Contract Brewers Posing As Gypsy Brewers?

Because we are having so much fun with terminology and meaning, I thought I would mention this:

As the name suggests, all the breweries involved, save for one (the host), are gypsy brewers. The Brewers Association (BA) defines this type of brewery as a contract brewing company—essentially a business that hires another brewery to produce its beer. The contract brewing company is often responsible for recipe development and handles the marketing, sales and distribution of the beer. “Not-owning a physical brewery doesn’t stop us [gypsy brewers] from being extremely passionate, innovative and community-minded,” notes Band of Gypsies ring leader, Ashley Routson of Bison Organic Beer. “Our mission is to work together to promote and celebrate each other, and educate the craft beer community on the world of gypsy brewing.”

Now call me goofy, but I do think words should have meaning and my understanding that a contract brewer hires someone else to make their beer while a gypsy brewer uses the surplus time on the brewing equipment of another to make a separate line of beer. In each case, the owner of the brewing equipment does not own the beer… unless that is part of the behind the scenes deal to get access to the equipment. The contract may or may not include marketing, shipping and the rest. Depends on the terms of the contract, doesn’t it. Pretty Things, for eastern North American example, does not own its own brewery but makes the decisions so it is an example of the gypsy. These BAers have been forming a shortish list of likely actual suspects. You can provide your thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate in the comments.

But there is something else to note. The fudging of the idea is alleged in the article to be based on the brilliant linguists of the Brewers Association whose recent work has been noted. The two ideas are muddled here, too. I am not sure that is correct, however, from this BA webpage which clearly described contract brewing for what it is – despite some of the other head scratcher definitions in there. Why would one widen the definition of “gypsy brewer” to include anyone who hires someone else to make beer? Because “gypsy brewer” sounds neato and swell while the more accurate “contract brewer” is laden with… accuracy? The trend towards adulteration of the language in the name of good beer is a bit weird, isn’t it.

This is not a crack at all against the project which I suspect includes far more hands on involvement than a contract brewer would sully themselves with. But there is something unseemly even needy in all the slipperiness, isn’t there. Again, thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate.

What Does A Critique Of Beer Culture Look Like?

I’ve been thinking more and more about the framework of the beery discourse and what has gotten us to this point. Still no comprehensive US history of beer. Still we live with the very language of beer controlled by organizations with middle managers, accountants and committees. And a growing trend such that, like things polysynthetic, the task of learning and describing the state of good beer appears to include a lot of creative writing – as in creation of the thing purported to be the subject of study. Not sure these are good things. There are stands being taken. I keep coming back to a post Jeff wrote a few weeks ago called “I Feel A Veto Coming On” in which he announced his rejection of a certain sort of beer:

…I must institute a similar policy with any experimental beer using crazy ingredients. I’m going to start from the position that anything that might plausibly be sold as a candy bar, salad, or entree is not worth drinking.

See that? That’s a position being taken. And one that makes sense. If you think about it, if the experimental beer is based on the adding of “not beer” to “beer” it is clearly a distancing of itself from beer. A dilution. A covering up. A distraction. One need not inaugurate the Protz Shield and Papazian Cup to point out the weakness in a trend or a shape shifting of the market. So, I take up Jeff’s policy and ask you to consider doing the same thing. Maybe 2013 is the year we can put the focus back on the beeriness of beer.

This Is How US Craft Beer Will Kill Itself

An odd, coordinated set of press releases today from the US Brewers Association (BA) and its leading members via any number of media can be summed up in the final section of the statement:

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking. And for those passionate beer lovers out there, we ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking. Is it a product of a small and independent brewer? Or is it from a crafty large brewer, seeking to capitalize on the mounting success of small and independent craft brewers?

The first sensible reaction is, of course, who cares. But then you read the variation on the theme by Papazian with its needy and slightly offensive reference to Founding Fathers and blindness to the good jobs offered by the 94% of the beer market served by big beer, well, you just shake your head. Never mind that some US craft brewers are big enough to have multiple breweries and large ad budgets. Never mind that many US craft brewers use much the same processes slammed by their trade association as marks of falsity if not signs of the end times. What is most annoying is that the whole construct is based on the faulty definition of what is craft – therefore good – by the BA itself.

Whether it is the BA-named Shock Top or its step-cousin the BA-silent Matilda, each ultimately produced under the Anheuser-Bush InBev corporate umbrella, there are plenty of examples of perfectly good well priced beer made by brewers who do not qualify for BA membership. There are also plenty of duds and plenty of highly questionable value propositions placed on beer store shelves by BA members. Again, few are special, most are solid work-a-day folk and some suck. Given that, launching on another David v Goliath fight based on a questionable self-generated definition of “craft” without reference to the sort of quality and price determinations the consumer has to make when out buying beer is a dead end. It is thin stuff that most can spot. All that I can see is that I have been reminded that the bigs are making some tasty beer now at a pretty good price.

As I said, odd. But these are instructive moments. Look to see who lines up behind the press release, repeating the arguments. Ask yourself why. As long as the view of the consumer is not the focal point for the discourse, one has to be very careful about such things, sifting what is independent opinion from what is generated due to one’s job description.

Wicked Beer Fan Related Finger Pointy Gossip Action!

I have to say I have no idea these sorts of things went on but, even though it is Easter and I should be nicer especially having attended an excellent morning service, I just can’t stop reading the comments after the post that contains this:

…I have had to explain, and apologize, for certain “Toronto beer celebrities” as if they are actualy goddamn relatives of mine, for their obnoxious, entitled behaviour in bars I have only been two once – like it’s my non-existent brother we’re talking about… I doubt if this gets through to anyone in particular, but PLEASE, do not ruin any more places in Ontario or upstate New York for me – I am tired of having to explain that “no, I am NOT associated with that dickhead” to servers, bartenders and pub/restaurant owners from central Ontario to south of Buffalo. I have tried to be nice, but frankly enough is enough.

Never have I been happier to have created the idea of Easlakia… OK, once but that was really really personal. But where in the world does the idea of “Toronto beer celebrities” (sic) come from?? I mean even the idea of “Toronto celebrities” alone bends the space time continuum a bit, right? No, this is weird. Yet honest. Yet a car crash. And makes me wonder what stamp collectors say behind each others backs.

I live in a bubble out here. If this is what beer nerds are, I don’t know. I am taking another good hard look at Miller High Life. Just saying. Add a slice of lime, it’s a Mill-rona. It works.

Delaware: Theobroma, Dogfish Head, Milton

Mark Dredge has a piece in this morning’s Guardian out of the UK entitled “The Beer of Yesteryear” which scans the range of recent brewing efforts to recreate beers older than, say, 500 years ago. These are beers which use ingredients available to former culture including Theorbrama by Dogfish Head. I had one on hand and thought I would see if it has any appeal. Mark tells me:

Theobroma, part of Dogfish’s Ancient Ale series, is based on “chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras which revealed the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink used by early civilizations to toast special occasions.” It contains Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chillies and annatto.

The bottle adds that it is based on chemical residual evidence from before 1100 BC with additives from later Mayan and Aztec drinks. So, seeing as the Aztecs come from about 1300 to 1600 AD, it is sort of a made up mish mash. Its as much a traditional drink as one from, say, that one Eurotrash era that stretched from the Dark Ages of around 800 AD to the world of George Jetson in the year 2537 AD. That would be an excellent era… right?

Well, as a beer it is a bit of a disappointment as well. Booze overwhelms pale malt which is undercut by the exotic herbs all of which has an oddly “beechwood aged” tone to it. I get the cocoa. I get the honey. But I don’t care all that much. It leaves me disappointed like that imperial pilsner experiment of Dogfish Head’s in 2006. Only moderate respect from the BAers. A bit of a boring beer that may be the result of a fantastically interesting bit of archeological work. Who knows? Maybe the sense of taste of those Central American practitioners of human sacrifice wasn’t as haute as one might have expected. Or maybe it paired well.