Book Review: Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, Josh Noel

My copy of Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business came in the mail from Amazon this week and I happily started into it while watching preteen softball on a June mid-week evening. The book, as the cover image to the right explains, is a history of Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company, creator of the barrel aged stout and most infamous of the craft brewers to cash-out.

The book covers the span of over three decades, tracing an arc from brewpub making English style ales to regional production microbrewery to big craft reject to brand asset within the portfolio of an international global conglomerate. It’s quite a remarkable thing.  Before I knew it I was 120 pages in. It is clear that author Josh Noel, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune covering a broad mandate, benefits from his skill as an investigative reporter but also as a native of that fair city. The beer and book both convey a sense of place as well as event.

It also, refreshingly, paints realistic portraits of the key players, warts and all – without the slightest bit of an unseemly tone. My first impression from the book, in fact, was that none of the players behind the rise and fall and then rise and fall of Goose Island were all that attractive. As Noel tells it, brewery founder John Hall comes across as a bit of an angry nutcase who came up through the corporate rat race, starting out as a cardboard box salesman. We read at page 79 that as early as 1996 Hall is described as planning to sell out to big beer. But he’s also someone who took a change with his accumulated wealth on a reasonable if calculated risk so the attitude makes sense.

Less sensible is the image created of John’s son Greg: drifter turned alcoholic brewer turned egotist face of the business.  To the mid-2000s, he frankly comes off as a poor little rich kid, even if politely described. Even Michael Jackson is given an cameo and a slag at page 30:

Jackson was a good message guy. He wouldn’t hesitate to criticize Big Beer. But when a small brewery released a flawed beer, no one knew it from Michael Jackson.

The point of these observations is not to be just unkind. As a result of such honesty – rare among craft narratives – the reader is provided with a basis for trust in Noel’s work.  That trust is bolstered by Noel’s deft description of the factors behind the mid-2000s shift from micro-brewing to craft brewing as the US gospel of good beer.  While Noel does unfortunately buy into the back dating of “craft”* to an earlier point when it was not either the ethos or in general use, he does explain how the first efforts of the Brewers Association starting with its formation in 2005 were aimed at control of the discourse through control of the language. Noel suggests it needed to do this for internal reasons:

By the early 2000s, craft beer was splintering into identities. It was cool, it was hip, it was counter culture, it was “you’re not worthy”…

Not to mention it was when brewers and society at large were uncomfortably witnessing the weird 2002 tale of the “Sex For Sam” sponsored by Samuel Adams Beer in which “prizes were awarded to people who had sex in unlikely public places.” Yik. Noel unpacks the tone of the times, unpacks the tension which existed between cottage industry “craft” and what the founders of the Brewers Association were really after and later accomplished: the creation of a single story of large efficient breweries where quality and consistency are the hallmarks. Thus the creation of heterogeneous and hegemonic big craft as an act of sheer control.

Tied to the BA’s interest in market control, efficiency and scale – a goal would have made E.P. Taylor glow with pride – are Noel’s observations on profit and wealth as a fundamental underlying goal. Be clear on this point. All beer has this as its goal and it applies to macro, old school micro, big craft as well as today’s  tiny taprooms. So we read that Goose Island’s 312 beer is a hit as much for the retro black telephone tap handle as the taste.  And that Matilda was pushed as it had twice the profit margin of 312! And you thought it was all about homage to the great brewers of Belgium. Chumps.

I am enjoying this book greatly. I may even post another follow up as I have in the past when faced with a book on beer that sits so far above the rest. If you have not bought this, skip a couple of six packs and get your copy now. Like right now. Now.

*Not to mention perpetuates the tooth-achingly saccharine phrase “cast of industry all-stars” at page 124 thus, likely unintentionally, appearing to trip over the line from keen observer to fan-boy-ish insider.

Who Was Ben Kenton And How Good Was His Porter?

Hunting for references to the 1700s hops trade, I came upon this notice in the Independent Journal of New York from 1 March 1784. What was remarkable was how, within a year of the end of the American Revolution, trade was being undertaken with the former motherland.  What was also remarkable “Ben Kenton’s Porter” – who was he? Two and a half years ago, I mentioned Hibbert’s London Porter being sold in New York in 1798 but have yet to see this Kenton follow mentioned. Now off on a new hunt, I found the following in a book from 1787 entitled Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee:

A few minutes after a gentleman came up to me, and asked me if my name was not Corncob; I answered in the affirmative, but said I had not the honour of-recollecting him. “I wonder at that,” said he, “for we were fellow prisoners at Boston, and made our escape together from gaol.” We immediately began to congratulate and compliment each other…  On taking leave he invited me to dine with him the following day, at his plantation, where I was regaled in a most luxurious manner; the turtle was superior to any ever served on a lord mayor’s table; the’oranges and pine-apples were of the highest flavour; Ben Kenton’s porter sparkled like champaign, and excellent claret and Madeira crowned the feast. At the end of the dinner I caught myself unbuttoning my waistcoat, and crying out, ’tis d–d hard that there should be hurricanes in this country.

Then, my curiosity piqued by mention of the quality, I found this passage in the diary Of Joseph Farington, R.A. from September 1803:

September 4. Dance called. He spoke of the great changes which happen in some men’s fortunes. He dined the other day with Claude Scott, the corn merchant at His House near Bromley where He lives splendidly. The late Ben Kenton ; Porter Seller & Wine merchant told Dance that when he kept the Magpye ale house in Whitechapel, Claude Scott, abt. 30 years ago, applied to him offering to keep his books, being then seeking for employment. Kenton died possessed of a great fortune, & Scott is supposed to be worth 300,000. His Son married the only daughter of a Mr. Armstrong who is said to be worth half a million.

Greedy Georgians. It’s all money, money, money with them. Kenton was described in one account as “a typical East End lad made good; his mother was said to have sold cabbages on a stall in Whitechapel Field Gate.” Kenton himself apparently started out as a waiter in a tavern. In The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1800, Kenton’s passing was recorded in this entry for 25 May:

In Gower-street, in his eighty-third year, Benjamin Kenton, esq. From an obscure origin, and an education in a charity-school, he obtained, by frugality, industry, and integrity, with an irreproachable character, a more than princely fortune. For some years, he kept the Crown and Magpye tavern, in Whitechapel; and afterwards, becoming wine-merchant in the Minories,* He went very largely into the trade of exporting porter. His property, in the different public funds, exceeds 300,000l. and at the present market prices, is worth 272,000l. his landed estates 680l. a year. And he has bestowed it in a manner that reflects honour to his memory.

Kenton’s portrait hangs in Vintners’ Hall in London. He was “one of the most of distinguished members” of the Vintners’ Company was one of the beneficiaries under his will. His obituary goes on to list all the charities to which he left considerable sums – “the hospitals of Christ, St. Bartholomew, and Bethlehem, 5000l each; to the charity for the blind, 20,000l” as well as one Mr. Smith, his grandson, and only immediate descendant, “who was, unfortunately, not much in his favour 800l a year.” Don’t shed a tear as that is the equivalent of 87,000 pounds a year now. The vast residue of the estate is left to his daughter’s man friend, survivor of a bit of a tragic tale. **Anyway, so it appears Kenton was a self made man with buckets of money. Made from selling wine and Porter.

Before he was a disgruntled schismist, Anglophile George Washington bought Kenton’s porter as part of a large general shipment of fine British goods in 1760.*** Here is a 1766 invoice for a shipment sent by Kenton to the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers.

 

 

 

 

To the left is an advertisement from the Maryland Gazette of 28 July 1763 offering “Ben Kenton’s Porter in bottles.” From the same publication, in the middle there is a notice from 19 May 1774 which includes among the offerings “a few dozen of Ben Kenton’s porter.” To the right is word of a sale in the 12 March 1784 Morning Post of New York with 40 barrels and hogsheads of porter which was not from Ben Kenton but direct from the brewer Phelix Calworth “who had the preference of supplying the great Ben Kenton.” Which points out that Kenton made his zillions not from making the porter but from distributing it. Kenton’s middleman role is similar to the one played by the merchants Hugh & Alexander Wallace in 1772 intra-provincially as shippers of Lispenard’s beer to William Johnson, the man who could have stopped Washington had he lived.

Detail on his rise to wealth and how it occurred is set out in an 1893 guide to London street signs:

In the year 1719 a boy was born of humble parentage in Whitechapel, who, as Benjamin Kenton, vintner and philanthropist, achieved a considerable reputation. He was educated at the charity school of the parish, and in his fifteenth year apprenticed to the landlord of the Angel and Crown in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. Having served his time, he became waiter and drawer at the Crown and Magpie in Aldgate High Street, not long since pulled down. The sign was a Crown of stone and a Magpie carved in pear-tree wood, and the house was frequented by sea captains. Kenton’s master is said to have been among the first who possessed the art of bottling beer for warm climates. He, without reason, changed the sign to the Crown; his custom fell off; he died, and the concern came into the hands of Kenton, who restored the Magpie to its former position, and so increased the bottled-beer business, that in 1765 he gave up the tavern and removed to more commodious quarters which he built in the Minories.

Hmm: “…among the first who possessed the art of bottling beer for warm climates.”  It is noted in the guide Cylindrical English Wine and Beer Bottles 1735-1850 that Kenton took care to select the design of his glassware, preferring champagne style glass. Kenton shipped bottled porter to India, too.

The bottles were good enough to steal, in fact. In the records from the Old Bailey, there is a prosecution of William Sinkey for the 1780 theft of three baskets of empty bottles owned by Kenton. The finding of “not guilty” was based on Sinkey’s argument that the thief had been hired by someone to carry the basket he was found with. Seems a bit light to be let off if you ask me. By contrast, in 1771 William Grimsby – a cooper by trade – was found rolling away a hogshead owned by Kenton just 40 yards down the road from where it was left. He was not so lucky in his pleas to the court, was convicted and transported. The thief was likely sent to America, the main repository before the Revolution and before convicts were sent to Australia.

More than just biography makes this all of interest. It reminds me of the 1700s hop rulings I wrote about a few years ago that indicates how much value was in that element of the brewing industry. Scale. The economic power that brewing generates never fails to impress. I am also very intrigued by the reference to the “art of bottling beer for warm climates.”****We see again and again how common trans-oceanic shipments of porter, ales and beer were. That the skill was perfected by a wine and porter merchant perhaps should have been obvious in hindsight. Have to keep seeing what I can find out about what that skill was…

*His business address in 1760 was No. 152, the Minories, Aldgate according to a note to this record of Washington’s purchase. This blog post has an image of the street from not long after Kenton’s passing.
**Who, in turn, appears to be uncle to the painter Constable.
***He bought from Kenton regularly in the 1760s. His taste for porter extended past the Revolution.
****Note => “He… became possessed of a secret which made his fortune, that of bottling ale so that it could pass through the changes of climate on the voyage to India round the Cape, without the cork flying out of the bottle.”

When Did The United States First Export Hops?

Above is a table published in The Republican Watch Tower of New York on 4 July 1804.  I went looking for this sort of thing after reading Martyn’s excellent post of this week “How Long Have UK Brewers Been Using American Hops? 200 Years, You Say…” Initially, I was interested in the Hesperus, the ship that brought the hops in question to New York to Belfast in 1818. I found notices in the New York newspapers for the same ship bringing Irish linens to the American market on its return voyage. I love ships.

But then I wondered when the first exports of hops from the young United States occurred.  And I say “United States” as there is no reason to believe there might not have been colonial exports here and there but I would suggest that is another story. That being said, if the table above is to be believed, hop exports would have begun at least in 1797. But where did they go? One often reprinted 1802 article under the title “To The People of the United States” authored under the  name Franklin originally in The Aurora on early US export prospects – the one to the right quoted from The Bee of Hudson, NY –  specifically addressed the hop trade and gave a sense of the realities and goes on to conclude:

The profits of raising hops are such that the great brewing countries of Europe impose heavy duties on their importation from America or elsewhere.

So, soon into the new century US hops were needed at home and subject to European protectionist tariffs. The hop trade to Europe was subject to a prohibition. Which means it had been happening and then was stopped. Which makes one wonder where all those pounds of hops were going, the ones shown in the 1804 table from The Republican Watch Tower. Hmm.

It is clear that there is a market for hops at the time. The internal inter-state beer trade was certainly robust between New York and New England. Here is a notice that includes 35 sacks of hops on sale in NYC in 1795. In this notice to the right in the New York Gazette of 27 August 1805, 20 bags of hops are on offer. If they are 50 pound bags, that is the same volume of hops listed as the entire export from the nation in 1797.  In this edition of Ming’s Price Guide* from New York in August 1810, there are prices for both American and English hops. Still, the international market for commodities like hops has to be understood in the context of tariffs and even international relations during the Napoleonic Wars and at this time we have to be reasonably aware of the Jay Treaty of 1795 opening up trade from the US to Britain and the Embargo Act of 1807 shutting it down again. So if we are looking for an export of hops to Britain from the United States we should keep those dates in mind.

The other thing to remember is that hops are not only native to New York but also grew prodigiously. To the right is a notice for the sale of certain lands in central New York. It was placed in the New York Gazette on 3 May 1805 and notes that “the soil is rich and fertile to produce any species of grain, hemp, etc. – the climate moderate (testified by the abundant growth of vine and hops); the water is good, the salmon and other fisheries great…” So while Craig may be correct in relation to the dates of commercial growing and selling of New York hops, their pre-existing natural abundance was an obvious characteristic of the state. It is also worth noting that when he and I were putting together Upper Hudson Valley Beer, I came across a record from the first decade of the 1700s of Mohawks selling hops to Albany brewer, Evert Wendell.

And hops were not just picked wild at the time. In
The New and Complete American Encyclopedia, 1808 edition, there is an extensive section on the propagation and selling of hops including information taken, it is cited from a document published by the Agricultural Society of New York… no, the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures, instituted in the State of New York.** The cultivation in New York is especially encouraged:

The cultivators of land in this state have every inducement which policy or inducement can afford, to enter, in spirit, into the cultivation of hops. We shall therefore be enabled to supply our own demand, and export this article; instead of sending abroad for all we use; and no crop that can possibly be put on land will yield an equal profit…

Were the hops loaded on the Herperus in 1818 destined for a Belfast brewery the first hops sold into the British market? It’s quite unlikely given the abundance of native hops, the records of an export trade, public marketplace pricing and the general regular European trade in many commodities going back a couple of centuries. Was there a Caribbean market for hops along with the wheat and biscuit shipments we see bound to supply an aspect of the slave trade? Could be but southern brewing of beer was a very dodgy thing.

It’s also likely that it was a little remarked upon activity, like the export of casks of beer from Albany and New York City. Likely modest supplies of infilled cargo rounding out a vessel’s hold. As usual, we are at the whim of the vendor from the time – was there enough demand to spend the money to place the notice in the newspaper? Without someone making that decision then it is difficult to know now what they were particularly up to. But such is life, the record of the activity never being proof of the fact of the activity.

Still, there is likely more to be found out there – especially in relation to activities such as Strictland’s study in the years after the end of the Revolution when interest in trade between the newly independent nation and the home of its often Loyalist heart in the old country seemed to tick up before the laws came down. So let’s consider this an introduction to the idea.

*aka Dickinson’s (Formerly) Ming’s New-York Price-Current, Ming and Young’s New-York Price-Current, Ming’s New-York Price-Current, Oram’s New-York Price-Current, Oram’s New-York Price-Current, and Marine Register, The New-York Prices Current.
**The NY Agricultural Society as it exists today only comes into being in 1832… which seems a bit late given the county ag fairs start up years earlier.

 

Your Ontario Election Day Good Beer Blog Thursday News

Wow. We are here finally. Just a few weeks ago we got our first campaign photo of a leadership candidate pouring a beer. The best thing is there is a  chance that someone who got the second most votes to become the leader of his party will go on to lead that party to the second most votes to lead that party to election victory to become Premier of Ontario* for the next four years. See how nice and accommodating we Canadians are?** Actually, just with a good night in a pub, it is all about seat distribution. All so excellent. I trust by this time next week I am not an involuntary freelancer as a result.

Midday Update: I must have lost my marbles during the hazy dilerium brought on by that anthem to the province as I have forgotten to mention not only that you will need to check out Boak and Bailey’s pépites des actualités on Saturday but also failed to recognize Stan’s (i) return to the Northern Hemisphere but also (ii) his return to the Monday beer news correspondent’s desk.

Such confusing times. Confusion is all about the news these days. Did you know that in New Brunswick Moose Drool beer has to be called Moo Drool beer? Did you know, as my fellow Esq. reports, that the Oakland Athletics are legally objecting to a craft brewer of sorts for misuse of the word “athletic”? My main issue in the latter one is how you cannot have no-alcohol craft beer. It’s an impossibility to impose that technique and remain true to anything resembling a traditional process. Much more ominously, a careful eye has noted that a craft brewer in England has adopted reasonably identifiable fascist imagery and name branding. Denials ensued – but how thick are folk?

In a more tangled pit of legalese, we learn of this story coming out of a court process in North Carolina:

A lawsuit brought by Charlotte’s largest craft brewers has uncovered illegal activity amid efforts to overturn North Carolina’s self-distribution laws, according to an attorney representing them. Initial discovery exposed a “secret agreement” between Anheuser-Busch and distributor R.A. Jeffreys that gives sales of those beers priority over all other products — illegal under a 1989 state law, says Drew Erteschik, co-counsel for The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, NoDa Brewing Co. and the Craft Freedom initiative. 

I love secret deals in that you often find if you do a little research they were actually reasonably discoverable at the time… BUT THE POINT STAYS THE SAME NOW!!! Secret anti-craft factions lining up against us all. How will craft survive… err, maintain its place… err, resist massive continuing expansion?

Sad wine news from Nova Scotia as frost in June hammers the grape crop.

Speaking of craft expansion, Evil Twin Brewing has called out the hidden shadowy practice of private equity’s grasp upon the ankles of craft beer, including this in lamentation to a voice speaking for the cause of money – a dirge to what is and what should never be. Oddly, this is all raised in response to the expansion of the Mikkeller corporate empire. Being owned by, I now assume, more evil twin.

Note: extremely interesting connection drawn by one US craft brewer between the discussion above, the underlying state of affairs and its refusal to participate in the central authority hugging “IndePendeNt” seal*** issued by the Brewers Association.

This tweet reminded me that it is good to remember that, while Canada may be relatively young, Ontario retains a number of Georgian taverns like the 1830s Black Bull Tavern of Queen Street in Toronto.

Tank Stella“? Please tell me that is code for something.

Jeff pointed out something very interesting when he discussed whatever something called “rosé beer” is:

No. Rosé is just a name applied to preexisting beers to move product. Hibiscus goses? The first of those appeared nearly a decade ago. This is not a new style, it’s just a way to make people there’s something new here.

It relates to a point The Beer Nut made over here in relation to east coast IPA. The death of style being accompanied by confusion as to the continuing lingering existence of what was formerly perceived as, you know, a style. I have never understood “east coast IPA” since people stopped praising east coast IPA circa 2007. Harpoon IPA is the model. Malty and less hoppy and perhaps still available  at Fenway… or wherever else no one cares about your Cicerone server badge. Rosé beer? Quebec’s Rosée D’Hibiscus has had reviews posted on BeerADvocate since at least 2007 including this linguistic wizardry:

It’s pink, an orange pink colour with a finger of foamy pink head. Pinkest beer I’ve had. Some lacing as the beer goes down.

Sounds pretty damn rosé to me. Which, for me, illustrates a key element of craft beer boostering today – amnesia. Or a profound dedication to not researching anything.  Can’t be an expert without a strategy to adopt unknowing.  “Waters of Lethe” might actually be a good name for a Midlothian beer bar, come to think of it.

Bizarre: if this is the weaving of “the science of craft beer into story telling like no other” then isn’t all pretty much lost? Nice puff piece, maybe, on the use of ingredients to add fruit flavours. Maybe.

HardKnott Dave doesn’t have amnesia. And he seems to be equipped with an honesty attachment as well. His piece on the role of moolah and line placements in UK pubs is fabulously clear:

They contacted me a couple of months ago as they were negotiating with suppliers of their major brand lager. It seems that they were being offered a cash lump sum for a two year exclusivity deal. They were being offered £2k cash to kick our Intergalactic Space Hopper off the bar. Apparently it isn’t just one major beer producer that is doing this, it is most of the big multinational brands and is looking a little bit like a cartel and anti-competitive action.

Preach! Too bad 99.9999% of people in the know are not sharing. Reasonable to assume anyone downplaying this is on the take one way or another themselves.

By the way, this post marks the 3000th post in the upgraded version of A Good Beer Blog launched in October 2016. If you ever want to glory in the original 2003-2016 site and the 1,500 or so extra posts over there that I never quite got brought over here it is sitting there at the Wayback Machine just waiting for you. I do love that old school tab with the 2004ish beery emoticon. Mucho mucho gracias for all the clicks over all the years!

*This oddly spaghetti western themed tune was rolled out to us when I was in kindergarten in 1968, we sitting lined up neatly, a couple hundred souls cross-legged on the gym floor getting our dose of political propaganda.
**Well, most Canadians…
***whatever… ;D

Warm Weather And The Taxes Are Done Early May Thursday Beer News

Is there any news now that the temperature is over 20C? Isn’t that the real news? Is there any other news to cover? Sure there is the mule making process* being experimented with again, the comminglings this time happening at the #CBC18 event. A magic time with all sorts of attractions. One might find some news there… but how to do that (i) at a distance resistant to the back-slappy back-scratchy and, you know, (ii) sober? What idealism. That’s not how the news is gathered. Buddy up and hit the free bar!

LAST MINUTE ADDENDUM: an hour and a half long video of Ron going on about brewing in the 1700s at a US university. [Gotta fisk and fact check…]

Elsewhere and perhaps from another universe, the best tweet of the week was this one by Dominic Driscoll who berated a beer festival for attracting nothing but the same old “rip-off street food and only hipster attendees.” Actually, I found the selection of shades of grey in this image attached to his tweet rather compelling. Perhaps not all that #CBC18 but still a worthy gathering.

Check your trousers for flying monkeys. Boston Beer had a good quarter.

You know what? I bought three types of cloudy ale variants last weekend as well as a brett saison for takeaway from Ottawa’s Flora Hall Brewing and I was happy to report to myself, once I settled in back home, that I quite liked them. One was even a NEIPA. Nothing like the SunnyD stuff labeled NEIPA crap that I have been handed before. This was cream and fruit and grain all a bit like your morning yogurty muesli. Which is something I like to eat. So why not? I bet they would even pair well with my morning yogurty muesli.

Conversely – and sadly – this story does not live up to the headline as “Adnams Makes Beer from Leftover Marks & Spencer Sandwiches” is really just about recycling the crusts of sliced sandwich loaves. Not anywhere near as disgusting as I had hoped so therefore not anywhere near as fun. Still… it might pair well with recycled crusts of sliced sandwich loaves.

Speaking of which, “Today’s Beer” makes much more sense than “Modern Beer” as a descriptor, given styles are shifting at the speed of a fruit fly family’s genetic fingerprint. A few years from now it will be more like “This Afternoon’s Beer”… maybe.

While, yes, this beer may have nothing to do with Washington it is still sad to have to say the actual history of brewing in the 1700s colonial and independent America was vibrant, clearly full of good beer, brewed at a generous scale and sometimes exported – and porter was even cellared and aged.  Looks like a case of becoming what you berate. Click a few links to the right starting here if you want to know the real story. If you want to, that is.

Back to today, remember when cable TV companies complained about all that convergence happening on the information superhighway? Same:

One could argue that alcohol consumption may have decreased nationwide, but the way the study controlled for countries that had specifically introduced recreational pot, before and after, seems to provide strong evidence that access to weed on some level replaces a degree of alcohol consumption. The results of the study also reportedly “take into account age, race and income data.” They confirm similar findings from two previous professional studies on the same topic, all of which have suggested a link between marijuana legalization and a decrease in alcohol sales.

Which means tomorrow’s Today’s Beer might not even be beer. Don’t worry. Just like brewing history, craft can bend the words so deftly that tomorrow’s today’s beer could actually be not beer and, yet, still be called beer.

I like this story in The Washington Post and not only for the admission that the interest in non-alcoholic beer is due in large part to the author’s alcoholism. My problem is that rather than hunting out non-alcoholic beer when I don’t want the booze, I like to hunt out drinks simply without alcohol. Pear juice. Yum. Assam tea. Ahh. Ginger ale. I am mad for good ginger ale. And it illustrates the problem with folk who say they are really only into craft beer for the flavour: there are masses of other flavours out there to be explored elsewhere, well away from the ethyl alcohol. Summary? If you don’t want or can’t have a beer… why have a bad beer?

I also like this incredibly detailed bit of research in something that is likely not connected to The Wall Street Journal but I have no idea why it was undertaken. Now I know that North Dakota out drinks South Dakota in terms of beer. By a tenth of a gallon of beer. I think that might be a nonfact. Or is it an unfact. A true thing that matters not a jot. Not a sausage. I do like how it show little meaningful correlation between taxes on beer and consumption of beer.  North Dakota has the 17th highest taxation level. Think about that. 17th. Boom. Don’t even mention Rhode Island. Just don’t.

One more thing. I was happily reading an article today and then got blind sided by another one of a sort of weird but typical editorial choice showing up in beer periodicals. I’ve been holding back. This is something that I have found to be somewhat embarrassing for years. Let me share my pain. It is illustrated to the right in the sub-tile kicker (or whatever journos call it) beneath the headline for this article on mead in the latest issue of that CAMRA mag. “Fire breathing dragons and armies of the undead…“?!? What unmitigated cheese. But then you see the same thing in the same article above a very nice piece by Boak and Bailey: “…the lost art…“! It’s all a bit ripe. Holiday cheese ball ripe. What am I complaining about? It’s that weird junior high basement dungeons-and-dragons grade ancient, mystical, medieval claptrap. You see it everywhere. It’s a bit there in that Raiders of the Lost Ark OG cover, too. Makes you feel like you should be drinking your beer from a pre-raphaelite vase while discussing hobbit culture as Houses of the Holy plays quietly on a slow loop somewhere down a hallway.** You see a hint of it anytime brewing is referred to as a “mystery” or “alchemy” even though it is the opposite of that – just a very common practice undertaken regularly for millennia by a large number of ordinary people. Would we  discuss, say, the “alchemy” of shoes? Or the “lost art” of, errr, growing reasonably ordinary tomato varieties in a nice terracotta pot bought at the hardware store? No. No, we wouldn’t. It’s like that loser “rock star brewer” crap of the X-treme beer era but, unlike that, it never seems to have the decency to go away. Never ever. No matter how stupid and laughable it all is. Does anyone actually get the slightest wiff of “mystical magical alchemy” mumbo jumbo at all from beer? Do you? Or is it just lazy cliché layout copy?

OK, that is it. The week that the BA plays BB right down to the big screens and the group hate on the evil other – terrible bad majoritarian popular beer.  It’s over. That week is done. And like every week, a new week begins each Thursday at noon. See you at the end of the next one. Go!

*Don’t get me wrong. The mule has wonderful attributes: “more patient, hardy and long-lived than horses, and are described as less obstinate and more intelligent than donkeys” according to wikipedia. Thick skin and and natural cautiousness. But they are just not… natural. The result of a meeting that would not otherwise occur. Who loads the Wikipedia entry for “Mules” anyway?

**Many is a word
That only leaves you guessing
Guessing ’bout a thing
You really ought to know, ooh…
(…you really aughta know-a-woe…)
[Fade out on twiddly electronic stoner keyboards.]

Some Thursday Beer News After The Whole Green Flash Thing

I love the map above, a 1881 Isochronic Chart showing travel time from London under optimum conditions. Which should help understanding the travel time for casks of British beer from that year and perhaps quite a few decades before. Or at least it can be adjusted by a factor. In 1732 the ship Ann crossed the Atlantic, from London to the not-yet colony of Georgia in 88 days. Note how in 1881 Nova Scotia and a bit of Newfoundland are green, meaning transit could occur under ten days. Or about an eleventh of an Ann. Neato. More here.

Gary: Bass master… not Bassmaster. Got it?

Archaeologist Merryn Dineley, is making some great points on Twitter these days about the lack of respect and role of malt and malting through time, both today and and in particular in relation to the study of Stonehenge.

Yup.

Ha ha! Stone sued a party that had nothing to do with it. Will they pay their legal costs? Is that the reason for the delay?

The forces of “don’t worry, be happy” are out in force this week given that the news broke that the assets of Green Flash, the 43rd largest US craft brewery, have been sold off. As the Full Pint reported on Tuesday, this is part of the official memo that Green Flash President and CEO Mike Hinkley sent to over 100 shareholders:

On behalf of myself and the Board of Directors of GFBC, Inc. (the “Company”), I am truly sorry to report that the Company’s senior lender, Comerica Bank, has foreclosed on its loans and sold the assets of the Company (other than the Virginia Beach brewery) to WC IPA LLC through a foreclosure sale which closed on March 30, 2018.  As such, the Company no longer owns the Green Flash and Alpine businesses.  Comerica Bank is currently conducting a separate process to sell the Virginia Beach brewery. After a general slowdown in the craft beer industry, coupled with intense competition and a slowdown of our business, we could not service the debt that we took on to build the Virginia Beach brewery — and in early 2018, the Company defaulted on its loans with Comerica Bank.  

Note a few things. The shareholders were not aware of the decision made apparently by the main shareholder, the lender whose loan bounced. The were told after the fact. I expect that indicates that the lender got the power to do that in a loan agreement. It also might indicate that this was not the first loan agreement as gaining that short of shareholder control is not the stuff of ordinary loan agreements.  The failing of the business has being going on for some time. Also, these are asset sales.  This is not a foreclosure of the business.* The brewing company has not been sold off, just the assets of value. Including the “businesses” which would include the brands, the goodwill if any is left and all operational aspects.  So, the corporation has been stripped to pay the bank. Reason? Forget the other stuff – over extension of debt to move into the branch plant business. The only question that matters is whether others will be found to be in the same boat.

Craft was in the news for other reasons. The Wall Street Journal declared craft beer was “big business.” [Note: “big craft” was discussed in 2014.] I like this plain language sentence in the WSJ piece in particular: “[r]ecent years have seen a world-wide wave of beer consolidation.” No “sell out!” No “got gobbled up!” Just a plain language description of the business of beer doing what it has done for hundreds of years – consolidate.

One example of a consolidation was examined in far greater detail by the Chicago Tribune in Josh Noel’s excellent article “Goose Island Aims to Shake Off Rough Year with New Beers, Ad Campaign.” The only thing I didn’t understand was this passage:

Goose Island’s story is therefore returning to Chicago — an effort to tie the brewery not just to its hometown, but to cities in general: urban and bustling, with a dose of cosmopolitan and hip. “It’s something that can be owned and is differentiating for Goose Island,” Ahsmann said. “Think about it: Can you think of any other nationally distributed craft brewer based out of a city?” There are others, of course — Brooklyn Brewery, Boston Beer Co. and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco — but none that owns the idea of city in the way that Corona is beach or Coors is mountains. Ahsmann wants Goose Island to be that beer. 

If that is what Goose Island is doing under AB InBev it’s not speaking to me. I just thought Goose Island was about geese on an island. Monsieur Jonathan, Le Beerinateur, clarified on Twitter that is was a district of Chicago. Who knew? Without that context, there is no way I would think “gooseness” + “islandness” = “urban and bustling, with a dose of cosmopolitan and hip” because that math just doesn’t work for me even though I have been having the odd Goose Island IPA** since maybe 2010.  [Did all you all know this and not tell me?]

Is the lesson of both Green Flash and Goose Island that US craft and local/regional are more closely tied than big craft thought? Notte note: “It’s a fine lesson…

Celebrator ends its print run. I blame MySpace.

This is an interesting story. It’s about Catalonia’s burgeoning craft beer scene. It’s from March 2013. One key thing was left unexplored then: local sausages. No idea how they measure up compared to the sausages of other regions of Spain. That is not the point. You know, it would be nice to know what each junket sponsoring jurisdiction requires in its funding agreement by way of social media follow up content. That is for another day. Today, I am fascinated by the sudden fascination with Catalonian sausages.

You want a real beer vacation? Three words: Bavarian… theme… park.

My two favourite April Fool’s pranks: “Brewers Brace for Brettanomyces Shortage” and ^Greg, the Sunday intern for Boak and Bailey.

That’s it. I am down to the cheap shots and gags. It wears one down. More next week. Sure thing. You bet. Perhaps cheerier. No promises.  No comment.

U*This could be another aspect of the over all plan.
**Or something or other under that label.

I Don’t Understand The Taproom Math

There other day there was another one of those triumphalist announcements from someone or other on Twitter that brewery taprooms were changing US beer culture forever. Don’t get me wrong. I like them and fully understand this sort of outlook as described in The Guardian:

British craft beer makers are reviving the tradition of brewery tap rooms as an antidote to the national trend of pub closures and the dominance of big brewers. About a third of small breweries now run a tap bar, which lets drinkers sample their wares, according to a report by the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba), which also highlights a burgeoning micropub scene as brewers take over empty shops on their local high street.

That makes sense. It’s new* and there is nothing craft beer likes more than novelty. But the idea that taprooms are going to alter the basic landscape is problematic. Say we have 6,000 US breweries each with the potential to have a taproom. They will have on average likely no more than fifty seats. And if we are honest on average they likely have less than thirty seats. There are many tiny new breweries which, as I noted last week, are where the only real growth is occurring.

I shall now do the dangerous thing and apply some math.** Even going with the higher number, fifty seats times 6,000 breweries is 300,000.  In the whole of the USA.  Let’s say we get to 10,000 breweries in a few years. That would make it 500,000 seats. For 325,000,000 people. One taproom seat for every 65,000 people. I once lived in Pembroke, Ontario where there were 13 large taverns for 13,000 people. It was a reasonable estimate that there was one seat in a tavern for 10 to 15% of the community’s population at any given time. And on Friday night it was self-evident. That town liked to go out.

For taprooms to even hit a 10% level of community coverage, the US would need 325,000 craft breweries with a taproom average of 100 seats each. Fantasy. Never happening.  Which is good. Good beer is always going to be a niche product with a position and price point set by general market forces as well as reliable percentage of reasonably high functioning dipsomaniacs. That being the case, they really fill a spot like high-end cake shops or the fancy butchers folk go to only for a holiday roast.

Why do I care? My concern is, while there is certainly rural and small community infill opportunity, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to come into the market in the way that new breweries might come on line just two or three years ago. The best serve food which makes them really a brewpub but they all can’t offer the same thing, let alone afford the infrastructure of a kitchen.

One stat I would like to see tracked beyond openings and closures is the average duration of a craft brewery’s life cycle. Has the life expectancy shortened as many new players join in the game? As opportunities become more limited, as shelf space ceases to be an option it would be good to know how long a taproom focused establishment can expect to exist. And, accordingly, whether the investment is worth it.

*OK, newish… well, not really all that new.
**Please refer to the title of this post before you wag a digit. And even if I am off by an entire base ten order that sill means 32,500 breweries. Nuts. 

The End Of March Is Already Here And I Do I Have Some Beer News For You!

Time. March 2018 is almost gone and I barely noticed it was slipping away. Q2 looms. Which is great as I hate winter but which is not so great as I turn 55 next month. Did I mention that thing about time? Still frigging cold outside, too.  That in itself should help you put the week’s news about fretting about beer in perspective. Come on spring. Hello? Anyone there?* OK, I get it… let’s see if the beer news is cheerier.

First, another vintage brewery necktie for the collection. Please – send me your neckties. I may not get samples and would stick nails in my eyes before I went on a junket but I will take your ties! That would make me happy.

Next, a number. 6,266!  Wow! That’s more than before and likely less than from a bit from now. That of course, is not the real news. It’s nothing like that deep insight that things are “normalizing” – whatever that is. No, the real news came out in a web PR release that came out a day after the infographic that unpacked the numbered with an inordinate level of honest detail in the section entitled “Per Brewer Growth“:

In absolute terms, per brewery growth was less than 200 barrels last year. In 2014, it was almost 900 barrels. To drop like that suggests both that many brewers probably aren’t seeing the growth trajectories of breweries from a few years ago, and that many brewers are declining. The table below shows the distribution of companies with 2016 and 2017 data (so excluding 2017 openings). I’ve starred the “more than 50% group” as a reminder that a huge chunk of them are 2016 openings—50% will average growth of 100% or more just due to when they opened in 2016.

2017 Growth % of Breweries
-10% or worse 17.0%
-10% to -1% 10.3%
+/- 1% 15.3%
1% to 10% 10.0%
10% to 25% 13.0%
25% to 50% 11.6%
More than 50%* 22.9%

The positive interpretation of the table above is that even in an extremely competitive environment, 73% of breweries were flat or up last year. The flip side is that 27% saw declines greater than 1%, and 17% saw double-digit declines. 

Interestingly – but that is actually not the story. Notice above that there is a category for “+/-1%”… that’s is a weird choice of measurement. Unlike all the other bands. If you remove it, and aggregate it with the categories above it you will see that 42.6% of breweries saw no discernible growth or actually saw significant retraction. Then, understand that this is a percentage of the number of breweries and not a reflection of brewery production.  Since 2014, as the infographic says, there have been over 2,500 brewery openings in the US. 800 in just the last year. As these breweries are going from zero growth to some growth, it is logical that most of the growth by brewery numbers is based in the tiny recent entrants. Old bulky big craft appears to be stagnant or worse. I think we have been coming to that understanding over the last couple of years but it’s good to see the BA set out the numbers that tell the tale. Good news that.

Speaking of old bulky big craft, medium-large US craft brewer Green Flash is pulling up stakes and hightailing it out of the “branch plant out east” business. Likely they found out, as many are, that folk out east have plenty of beer out east that tastes like beer made out east and they like it just fine. Interesting: “…this is a move that was made to solidify investments to keep San Diego’s operations above water.” Wow.

Pete Brown wrote a wonderful thing Tuesday all about how rough his last decade or so has been. Folk called him brave, honest and an example. All true. It’s also a huge success. Kind of a graduation day speech. See, I have had two or three dabblings with what Pete wrote so openly about and, so, I know (i) I still couldn’t write what he wrote and (ii) it’s a measure of his success that he did. Hooray! I am very pleased but also concerned given how many people in good beer I would describe as stressed out, unhappy, dysfunctional workaholic who soothed themselves by eating and drinking too much. Be careful out there.

In another episode of where are the beer bloggers of 2009, Jeff of Stonch [ … now of Rye … but presently in Lunigiana…] reviewed a  beer this week:

Unsolicited trade samples aren’t usually terribly good. In truth, if a brewery’s making good beer, those with an interest in buying it or writing about it will have sought it out themselves. Similarly, beers with obscure geek culture references as names – the type that leave one none the wiser even when explained in detail – also tend to be shit. This one, therefore, surprised me twice.

Fabulously honest writing. Unlike anything edited and sold for payment. Which makes one wonder why, as shared in the recently circulated NAGBW Newsletter 2018.3, that the topics for NAGBW symposium during the Craft Brewers Conference has the three topics for panel presentations:

– “Beyond the Byline”: book publishing and podcasting;
– “Editor’s Roundtable”: leaders from industry publications share insights; and
– “Industry Roundtable”: hear from industry pros about pressing topics in beer.

None of which will lead to be a better writer even if you become a more compliant, less individualized one. It won’t make a Ron. And we all do know there is no real money in beer writing, right? Don’t be doing this for making money from writing… please. And don’t be sloppy researchers. Ben hates that.

Speaking of sloppy research, the great thing about the debunking of myths about lambic (often seemingly peddled by the edited and published) by Roel Mulder of Lost Beers is how the actual far more interesting story of lambic is explained.  It’s younger than the industrial revolution, it has been brewed in a far wider set of locales and didn’t rely on old hops. It’s about as traditional as mass produced Porter in mid-1700s was. Fabulous.

So there you have it. Another week filtering the positive from the dreary, the genuine from the fake, real from the seeming, the worthy from the transient. Ahhh… annnnnd… nothing turns on it. I probably could have done better, too. If I had made the effort. Something similar will happen next week. And I will be there to check it out as will Boak and Bailey on Saturday just as Stan will on Monday.

*making the noise of knocking on a window pane.

Your First Beery News Update For Spring 2018

It all got messy mid-week. It was looking dull and then a number of big things happened. More about those things later. The best thing, a littler thing, is not really one of note – it’s that Ron wrote a few travel posts as he wandered about England as a Goose Island consultant. Not that I mind his recipes and quotations from rulings of the magistrate’s court circa 1912 but his real gift is capturing the normal life of a guy and his problem with beer. Consider the gorgeous photo he attached to one post which I have pilfered and plunked right there. I have dubbed it “Ronnui“: lovely wood and glass inside with unloveliness outside and across the road. And a man considering the emptiness of it all. You sense that even the umbrella he brought won’t be enough. A fire extinguisher serves as a warning to you.  Not the sort of thing you’ll see in one of the new dipso guides to global vagrancy. Editors don’t like that sort of detail. No, this is honest stuff. Click on the image, look upon Ron’s work and despair.

US big picture: 4,900,000 fewer barrels of beer were made in 2017 compared to 2016.*  A retraction of a little more than 2.5% and twice the drop for 2015.  What you will hear about will include how 30,000** more barrels were consumed at brewery taprooms.   That represents 0.6% of the total loss of overall production. Pick your top trends accordingly.

More big brainy stuff. I found a 2008 MA thesis on beer and tourism in Yorkshire. I found it as part of finding out more about York Brewery (1996-present) whose necktie I just added to the old man office wear collection. So not really really big stuff – but it is a 62 inch tie so that is good.

Biggish? In just two weeks two glossy quarterly Ontario-centric beer mags have been announced. Overlapping writers. Won’t last. Can’t last. Who will blink? Or will they both starve the other enough that each folds?

Pretty big. Dave Bailey announced the closure of  hi brewery, the much-loved Hardknot (2006-1018). I was not shocked but certainly saddened. I was one of those who this time last year was muttering at a laptop screen saying “don’t!… DON’T sell your house to save your business!” even though I was rooting for him and his family. While others missed the point entirely, Mark Johnson gathers together a fabulous remembrance of when, among other things, Hardknot was as big as BrewDog when both were small. Big news that:

Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay.
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all.

Then? Good to see he is already planning his next phase, Guerrilla Brewing.

Big but not big. One thought that the ascendancy of  “juicy” or “hazy” to the preference of “NEIPA” or, the most honest, “London murk” was as big a day as when almost everyone got to join the US small craft brewers. What next, adding makeup sparkles? As if that would happen!

Conversely, the best thing of the week is this 1975 news item on the making of Traquair Ale. Plainness and excellence.

And one last thing… hmm… how about this. Is this you?

Recovered beer snobs, also known as “geeks” or “nerds,” are generally Gen Xers who’ve spent years swirling and sniffing taster-sized samples, waiting in line for Heady Topper, and posting pictures of their beer hauls. They’ve gone through a lupulin threshold shift that carried them from IPAs to 100-IBU imperial IPAs, and then on to sours because their palates had basically grown numb to anything that didn’t blow it to pieces. But, as observers predicted, they eventually got tired. They overloaded. They grew up. And they stopped wanting to think so hard about beer.

They grew up“! Fabulous. And not without some basis. Lisa noted that we are on the top of the craft beer cycle wheel again. Andy is noting the return to lite. I get it. I am not much interested in anything too strong and certainly nothing too cloudy, fruited or hopped. Did I grow up? Did you? Did Lew? No, not you…Lew! We all know you didn’t. He’s in the story bearing witness: “glassware is such a first-world problem.” Boom.

*my typo as to date fixed.
**See snark in the comments. I added links to BA and TTB documents that explain. The 30,000 figure is actually for unsold beer consumed in the brewery – staff drinking, spillage and samples? The increase in taproom sales (for both craft and macro) is 385,000 barrels or so. Or 7.85% of the overall gross retraction. But they are two separate sorts of numbers. The larger one is a retraction, the other a shift in format. Context: gin and whisky are up.

Beer Prices Surged This Month In China

If you are one of those types who have a tribal belief in a “craft community” and associate with a form of alcohol like normal people believe in things like religion, political parties, model train layouts or materialist somnambulism comfortingly disguising the actual nature of human existence, well, you might be the sort of person who believes that big brewing companies are (a) out to get your tribe and (b) spend a lot of time thinking about your tribe. In fact, they are thinking about China:

Anheuser Busch, the producer of Budweiser, raised its wholesale price by nearly 50 percent from March 10. Harbin Beer is also planning to raise prices in April. Zhu Danpeng, an independent food and beverage analyst, said: “As consumers are seeking good beer, it is inevitable for beer brands to adjust their portfolio and raise prices for their mainstream products, mainly medium-end beers.” The cost of raw material is a major driver for the price surge. According to a statement from Tsingtao Beer, packaging material costs have gone up, pushing up production costs. Snow Beer also blamed increases in raw materials, packing and labor costs.

If you think about it, that passage looks a lot like the sort of press release big craft brewers issue from time to time.  There is a reason for that. It’s because what they have in common is that they are likely not really all that true.  As with craft, price increases like this are far more about reward and opportunity than expense. Just as US craft has regularly seen growth in revenue outstrip growth in production (per unit opportunistic inflation), sales revenue of major beer producers in China rose 2.3 percent in 2017 even though production was down 0.66 percent. In that arguably tight a context, why would ABInBev raise wholesale prices 50%? Obviously… because it can.

Here  is a power point presentation, a tellingly short power point presentation, on ABInBev’s plans for China. Key message: China big. ABInBev is right there and being big, too.  Last December it opened a new brewery in southern Fujian province that can produce an astounding 160,000 cans per hour. They are presenting their products like Bid as higher end consumables. And a few weeks later,   the ZX Ventures division of ABInBev opened another new brewery in Wuhan to brew bulk craft products  like Goose Island.  These are investments of whacking piles of money intended to make many many more whacking piles of money:

According to industry research website Chinairn.com, the market share for premium beer is around 4 per cent compared with traditional beer. But this share accounts for more than 18 per cent of profits in the industry, while the market is expanding at the rate of 40 per cent a year. Eyeing the growing market, Mr Wang Deliang, brewery research director at the China National Research Institute of Food & Fermentation Industries, says that investment in the craft beer sector has been expanding in recent years as beer makers chase profits of up to 30 per cent.

Money. Whether in a tiny new US-based brewer’s taproom, Chinese-made craft or big bloated global big beer or any of the other forms of the front end of the trade these days, it’s about money.  Which is fabulous. Beer and money have always been twinsies. BFFs. If you don’t think so, look at a sector like big old US craft that is suffering, stagnating or shrinking. Left only to serve as finger wagging Oldie Olsons to the few left listening.

The lack of money may well be the root of all folk music but a future in beer it is not.