The Many Early Vassar Breweries Of Poughkeepsie

The more attentive readers will recall how back in July 2012 I wrote about the Vasser brewing book of the mid-1830s and then in November 2014 wrote about the Vassar general ledger of 1808-11. Then I wrote a whole lot about New York brewing over the last couple of years starting about here…  but I never got back to the Vassars even though, due in large part to the founding of a university, it is one of the more famous 1800s pre-lager American breweries. Wonder why? Too easy? The story is pretty much out there already for all to see. Matthew Vassar is a mid-century magnate along the lines of John Taylor of Albany and perhaps even a more wealthy brewer at the time. Everybody knows that.

But then a notice in a paper like that one up there grabs your attention and off you go again. It’s from the Poughkeepie Barometer of 14 April 1807 and it was placed by James Vassar, the father of Matthew. See what he’s doing? He has imported a European barley strain “more productive and valuable than the common Barley” and is selling it or leasing it to his neighbouring farmers. Leasing. That is fabulous as is the fact that the leased seed is “returnable next fall”! We learned the years around the 1700s becoming the 1800s was a time of crisis and innovation in the grain zones of the youthful USA. And, as Craig has shown, six row reigned far longer as base brewing grain than was understood – just as wheat lasted far longer and was used more widely as the main brewing base before six row was accepted. So, by bringing in European barley and propagating it for a few years until he had enough to spread out to neighbouring farms, James Vassar is in his way participating in the great experiment of making America.

 

 

 

 

Notice that the ad way up top was placed in Feb 1807. A few weeks later, as we see to the nearer left, James posts a notice seeking hops in the same newspaper. And he wants them to be not frost bitten and “gathered last season” too. But which one could gather he was advertising for local hops. Would it be obvious that they would have to be local Hudson Valley hops? Sixteen years later, above middle, we see a notice from the New York Spectator dated 8 April 1823 that gives an update on the London hop market as of the 4th of Mark – and it is all about English hops: Kent, Sussex, Essex and even Farnham* hops all being sold from 42 to 120 shillings. I do not see, however, hop market notices from much before that point.** Hop notices appear to be more of the “I’ve got a few bales” variety like with the one to the upper right from the New York Gazette of 28 September 1821. So… my bet is that in Feb 1807, James Vassar was looking for local hops when he placed his notice in the local paper. That being the case, he is brewing local ingredients but of the best quality he can find both in terms of barley and malt.

 

 

 

 

Which brings us to the 1808-1811 ledger. Vassar is making good ale branded under the name of his town. The ledger, as I mentioned in my 2014 post, places Vassar in the heart of a farming community centered on a supply town. Some of the same farmers who are growing his grain are also his customers. He also is buying hops by the pound from his neighbours, confirming my suspicions from that notice above. He is selling his beers in a town where there is a range of spirits, wine and other luxury goods from around the world according to the grocers notice next to Vassar’s November 1807 notice in the Poughkeepsie Barometer. And note something else important. The ledger runs, as you might have guessed, exactly to a point in the year 1811. This is because it is only the brewery ledger of the father, James Vassar. If you click on that thumbnail to the right you will see that the firm of James Vassar & Co. was dissolved on 15 November 1810 and accounts were settled with the partnership of John G. and M. Vassar, being the sons of James – John Guy Vassar and (“the”) Matthew Vassar.

 

 

 

 

The first brewery hands off to the second. And the next generation has its own dreams. They are brewing both ale and beer and also buying barley as well as hundreds of bushels of oats according to the notice placed by the partnership in January 1811. And they are continuing in their father’s practice of selling seed barley to the local farmers according to the notice in the now fancier Poughkeepsie Political Barometer of 17 April 1811. A happy and successful succession plan has carried forward. It doesn’t last. Weeks later in mid-May, as the article from the 15th of the month to the right explains, the brewery burns as they all seemed to burn in that era at one point or another. After the fire is controlled, however is when the real tragedy occurs. Two days later John G., the elder son of James, goes into the destroyed brewery to see how much can be saved but is overwhelmed by a gas that has settled in one of the vats and dies apparently in agony a short time later. Horrible. Sadder than even the story of Eugene O’Keefe a hundred years later.

 

 

 

 

What happens then? From the notice to the left placed on 25 May, 1811 James Vassar is scrambling to call in debts from both his time running the brewery as well as the term when his sons were. then, according to the notice posted again in the Poughkeepsie Barometer on 24 July 1811, Matthew is out on his own buying up cider which might place him away from the family business at this point… or maybe diversifying. He is only nineteen years old. That Wikipedia entry says M. Vassar & Co. started up in 1814 but this add from three years earlier clearly uses that name. The next year, James is in the market seeking 10,000 bushels of Barley in September 1812. That looks like the continuation of the brewery. Which would make for the third phase. Dad. Sons. Dad.

 

 

 

 

Then what? In the 13 January 1813 paper, Matthew himself is both buying barley and selling ale and beer. Dad. Sons. Dad. Dad/Son? Then on 14 July 1813 he is entering into a brewing partnership with a Mr. Purser, rebuilding the brewery and accepting the casks of James Vassar that are still out there more than two years after the fire. And he gets into other gigs. Matthew is also running a store with a particular focus on cigars… or rather segars – but that ends up in the hands of another partner, a Mr. Raymond as you can see from the notice above to the right dated 14 July 1813, the same day the notice goes up about the new brewery. Dad. Sons. Dad. Dad/Son. Son in Partnership? Maybe. All muddling along. Moving forward.

It’s actually quite the thing that later in life he becomes a magnate given all the ins and outs of the family’s early years in the brewing trade. It starts a bit like the hapless Horsfields of Brooklyn half a century earlier but then, somehow, they spawn a genius. After the early years of the century, Matthew gets into banking and brick works, railroads and politics. But that story, the story of the rise of the great Vassar brewery, is really a separate later one.

*Interesting, given the price being so much higher, that Farnham hops were discussed in New York newspapers as early as this story in the New York Journal of 20 January 1785 shows. This talk of Farnham is all for Ed, by the way.
**See also this set of New York Gazette notices from 20 February 1818 including two for hops and how geographically sourced goods are referenced expressly – Jamaica rum, Sicily Madeira, English Leather, Baltimore flour. Not the hops.

Burton Ale: “…They Brewed Not For Home Consumption…”

I hate… yet love… the small nuggets of information I come across when scanning the news reports from the 1700s. That’s a report from the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury of 24 July 1780 describing a debate in the House of Commons in London on a committee report on the taxation of malt. The regional rivalries between the big (or bigg) of Cumberland and Westmoreland as opposed to Scottish malt is one thing but that tidbit about the taxation of Burton Ale is gold… maybe.

Burton appears to be in the New York City market from 1770 from the notices like this one from the New York Gazette of 12 November of that year that offering it for sale at the Wall Street store of Samuel Hake. Eight years later, according to the NYGWM of 24 April 1778, it is being sold at the Vendue Store of John Taylor near the Fly-Market at the foot of Maiden Lane at the mouth of the stream associated at the time with the breweries of Medcef Eden and two Rutgers.  Taylor is also selling Bristol beer and our beloved Taunton ale along with porter.  Plenty of the results of English brewing is ending up in the colony.

Notice that Sir William Bagot does not deny the argument that Burton is brewed primarily for export, just that it opens a door to other presumably less valid claims – and perhaps illicit domestic sales. About a year ago, Martyn and I exchanged a few thoughts about the lack of understanding about the origins of Burton ale. But this bit of a Parliamentary debate is one of the only references I have found indicating an understanding at the time that Burton – like Taunton, porter and others – was part of large and organized North American export trade during the second half of the 1700s.

I wish I could figure out how to determine its scale.

For The True Beer Gent, A Hopsack Suit Perhaps?

From Sessional Papers, House of Lords, 1840

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The following was recorded in evidence at the Old Bailey on 9th December 1778 in a case of grand larceny.

Mr. PETER CORBETT sworn.

I am Bengal warehouse-keeper to the East-India Company. I have in my hand the invoice of the Duke of Portland; this was delivered to me from the company when the ship arrived, and it is my duty to see that every thing comes out clear from these packages into the warehouse agreeable to the invoice sent from the company’s servants at Bengal . In the second page, here is a No. 4. S. Taffety, which means striped taffety. Upon the opening of this chest, the servants under me gave me what we call a piling bill; they found only 176 pieces and a small bale containing ten, and this piece, which was kept for evidence. These goods were in a strong chest, nailed down, and there was a strong gunny or hopsack sewed upon it.

Hopsack. I know a bit about hopsack now as I own a blue blazer made of the stuff as well as a pair of black trousers. Neither Mr. Corbett in 1778 nor Mr. Lidbetter likely did. For them hopsack was definitely a packing or wrapping material. It’s formed by making your cloth in a basket weave. Often wool for clothes. Hemp and jute for bagging. Made into a jacket, it’s light summer weight cloth, the open weave letting the air flow. Fine fashion by the 1890s. For sacks and bags it’s strong, perhaps a grade or two above burlap.

The House of Lords was inquiring into the general economic circumstances when it was considering hopsack during its 1840 session, J. Mitchell, Esq., LL.D., Assistant Commissioner of the Hand-Loom Inquiry Commission reporting from the east of England. They learned about sacking and floor-cloth weaving in Reading, Berkshire and specifically Mr. William Harris of the delightful address, the “Hit or Miss beer-shop in Boarded-lane” who described the sad local state of affairs:

In the year 1815 there were as many as 11 masters and about 200 looms; now there are not 12 looms. The trade began to fall off in 1821, and has gradually become less and less, and when the old men, the present weavers, are gone, it is supposed this trade will be at an end in Reading. No person has learned the trade for years past. The price paid for weaving in 1815 was 2 J d. the square yard; this was reduced to 2 4 d., and afterwards to 2 d. per square yard. The sacking is three-quarters wide, or a little more. There is a great deal of time lost for want of regular employment.

There is now only one loom at work making floor-cloth. The web is six yards broad. There are looms which make floor-cloth eight yards wide, and even 10 yards wide. The cause of the want of employment in this branch is inability to manufacture the goods, and come into the market at the same price as the manufacturers of Dundee. The local advantages of that town in obtaining the raw material, in spinning and weaving and sending the goods to market, are such as to leave no chance for competition. The remnant of the business still lingering in Reading is the supply of the neighbouring farmers with sacks. There is no remedy, and with the present race of weavers the trade becomes extinct.

As stuff in demand, locally made Reading coarse packing cloth was on the way out. Why? Trains. It’s always the trains. Or the canals before them bringing in that cheap Dundee sacking… or a cheaper or tastier strong ale. Secondary manufacturers making the packing for the primary producers don’t need to be local when the trains can bring in stuff that’s as good for less. Mr. Lidbetter up there up top? He seemed to still be bucking the trend. He had a market the lads of Dundee couldn’t crack:

There is one article in which there is a decided advantage, that is hop bagging. The town is the very centre of a rich hop district. The consumer, therefore, is close at hand. The hop bagging is made very substantial. As it is the custom when the hops are sold to pay by the pound of the gross weight, hops and bag together, the hop grower has no interest in using a slight fabric. 

See the trick? Heavy sacking for the hops, higher price for the sack of hops. You don’t get that advantage by the train load.

When In Doubt, Consider A Simpler Answer

I left a comment over at Boak and Bailey in response to their noting this week of that Cloudwater cask story which whipped the British beer discussion out of its holiday slumber. That being said, I am still not sure the Cloudwater story has been properly framed so I am unpacking the comment a bit more here.  For starters, here are two tweets from Jeff that I think better get to a key factor underlying the situation:

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The Cloudwater press release was issued on 1 January 2017. They’ve been brewing for 22 month and have announced they are stopping cask production, stating:

We worry that cask beer has backed itself into a corner that risks becoming unattractive to modern breweries. 

I never trust that sort of use of “modern” as it smacks a wee bit of assumed superiority, echoing the new e-conomy of the late 1990s or at least a shortcut being taken. Especially as they don’t quite say they don’t make a profit – just an “insufficient” margin. Then, as you consider that, compare it to the to the brutally honest but tougher news from Dave at Hardknott on the one hand and how under capitalization can force a good brewery to face difficult decisions. Next, consider the positive story from Hawkshead which runs 65% cask that they also call modern beers.

It seems from those business stories that the question could be better asked as why Cloudwater took on cask without the full resources – or apparently a full plan to make it succeed as other success. Is it as simple as that?  I did find Eddie Gadd of Ramsgate Brewery’s tweet a bit telling:

…most new brewers (inc me) don’t look too closely at the numbers during start-up – we don’t want to be put off the dream!

I notice that the Cloudwater press release mentions they are working with Shelton Brothers and I have a suspicion that I have had their beer at the Allen Street Pub in Albany, a cask specialist, where, due to actual friendships, I do not seem at risk of ever being shelted.  Perhaps it was that pint of Black IPA with a balancing splash of someone else’s brown ale to give it some joy.

In any event, the idea that a firm representing about 1/3000th of British cask production not succeeding is cause to raise prices generally is a bit off. It seems from what we are actually being told is that cask places natural productiondistribution and even geographical constraints on the market that the ambitions of international craft can’t overcome or at least cannot easily reconcile without focus and extra capitalization. Makes sense. It is a thing unto itself. Should have been self-evident from proper initial market research.

There is nothing wrong with changing course. Do what makes you money and what you are interested in. But don’t slag the successes of others or blame the market. Congratulate others who succeed where you can’t or shouldn’t have tried.

The Fluidity Of Good Beer’s Paradigm Shift

Two bits of related US big craft beer industry news this week. First, Japan’s Kirin has acquired about 24.9999% of Brooklyn Brewery for an undisclosed sum on largely undisclosed terms. Second, Stone Brewery is laying off 5-6% of their workforce. How about we look at the latter first. Part of the news release states in part:

…the onset of greater pressures from Big Beer as a result of their acquisition strategies, and the further proliferation of small, hyper-local breweries has slowed growth. With business and the market now less predictable, we must restructure to preserve a healthy future for our company…

This is interesting. For some time I have been going on about the schism in craft beer. So long I bored myself with the obviousness of it. This statement confirms it. There are three sorts of craft: macro craft, big craft and micro craft. The one in the middle has the shortest shelf life. Boosters will deny it, but the sales slump for big craft has been a thing for a while. So steps have had to be taken and this is what it looks like after things change at the heart of a business. They are not alone. Remember, just last April, Stone tried to suggest that the outside investment funds they took on were “craft” investments. Silly PR committee. No one believed it. The immediate response today from Jason Alstrom reflected what might be going on: “Typical corporate response … Does not sound like Stone at all. They are having a tough time wearing those bigboy pants.” The CEO is blamed but the Board and ownership set out the tasks for the CEO to complete. Likely for very good reasons given the tired brand and founders.

In the other notable story, Brooklyn has taken Kirin’s cash. The transaction’s obvious and awkward effort to avoid hitting the 25% share level led me to review the Brewers Association’s definition of craft. An American craft brewer must be independent and to be independent…

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Notice that careful placement of “or” in that definition. Clearly, it is possible to control more of a craft brewery than owning the same relative measure in shares. How does that occur? By the transaction for the sale of shares including a shareholders’ agreement that effectively bars the corporation from doing many things without consent of the otherwise minority shareholder. As a result, the BA’s 25% ownership rule is meaningless in the world of creative financing and investment. Strings shall be both pulled and used to tie things down. Jason Notte commented on Twitter on the distinction between ownership and control as a factor in establishing the independence of a brewery:

I often wonder how deeply @BrewersAssoc dives into the details. They have a lot on the plate without auditing every deal.

The Devil is in the details, they say. If the Brewers Association is not able to keep up with the implications of the realities of business like investment terms why bother having the definition at all. Maybe that is the plan for 2017. These are, after all, the days and months of change. The big names of big craft are mostly moving out as the money moves in. It seems that only the man of yogurt is sticking around to bask in the twilight of these dusky days for big craft even after cashing out in his own way. He must be holding out for something more – but what?

Signs Of The Panic Of 1819 In 1820s NY Brewing

Not the cleanest image but obviously something was up in New York in the spring of 1820 if we are to believe the New York Mercantile Advertiser of 13 May 1820. What was up was the after effects of the Panic of 1819, the high point of a depression that hit the US after the end of the War of 1812 in 1815 leaving Britain even less interested in helping its former colony as well as the end of the Napoleonic Wars which saw Europe less interested in American wheat. While the Whig and Federalist brewers are in or past their last days, some still seem to be relying on status to soak the marketplace. After all, this is old New York and not some Jeffersonian frontier. The reign of the patroons just a little up the Hudson still has decades to play out.

schencab31may1820pricedrop

nydailyadv15may1820ininglass

schencab16jan1820beercandles

 

 

 

 

It goes both ways. Some elsewhere in the state did drop their prices as you can see in the ad to the left placed starting in December 1819, continuing deep into 1820. And people tried to barter with brewers like the guy placing the ad in the middle from the Daily Advertiser the same day as the meeting of the tavern keepers. [How much ale does 300 lbs of isinglass clear? And, come to think of it, I had no idea brewers in that era was worrying all that much about isinglass. Seems to put the whole “lager creating clarity mania” theory in perspective.] Hmm… and how about the brewer who placed the ad to the right, in Schenectady’s Cabinet, to advise he’s gone into business with a candle maker… although in a heroic effort to preserve the very elusive now extinct double double – clearly an ale quite distinct from the mere double ale. Trouble since Shakespeare’s day.

schencab02aug1820duanesburghYet, the future was now. Science was coming to agriculture in upstate New York. Ben Franklin’s dream of advanced husbandry which took a foothold in Philadelphia after the Revolution finally found fertile ground in the race west – even before the Erie Canal. See? The 1820 Duanesburgh fall fair was giving out prizes for the best acre of spring wheat. Twice the prize for the best acre of barley. Then as now – Duanesburgh looked to the future.

Is 2016 The Year That Craft Beer Became Boring?

It’s a concern if this recent report is anything to go by:

In the last four weeks, he added, the largest four BA-defined craft suppliers — Yuengling, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium — were down a combined 4 percent. “I don’t think IRI has Yuengling in their craft, but the other three are 33.9 percent of IRI’s craft cases right now,” he wrote in an email. “Add in Blue Moon and Shock Top and you’re looking at 48 percent of IRI ‘craft,’ which is down 8 percent in the last four weeks. That’s going to pull hard on any number.” Indeed, volume sales of mainstream craft flagships like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Boston Lager, and New Belgium Fat Tire were down 5.9 percent, 13.8 percent and 5 percent through May 15, respectively.

Not to come off as being all neg on craft beer, it’s good to note that cider is bottoming out, too. I was thinking about that while I was reading Bryan Roth’s bit about selling to Millennials, aka thems who everyone else used to call Gen Y. The Roth report warns that craft brewers fail to focus on this era’s set of young, fun, unburdened, disposing of disposable income cohort at their peril. Yet half way down the argument there is one of the scariest statements I have seen embedded in an info-thingy from the BA: half of craft beer purchases by Millennial males are brands the buyer never heard of before. Holy frig.

I am told the Cedar Waxwing is a bit of a rarity among bird. They lack a strong sense of territory. “Nomadic, moving about irregularly; both breeding and wintering areas may change from year to year, depending on food supplies.” Drifty drifters, they can take off in a flock heading in one direction and, if there is enough food on the path, keep on for miles. Then they shift aimlessly off onto another path, happy as long as there is something new to chew. Were they the cider drinkers? The buyers of big craft flagships? Are they now making 2016 the summer of hard soda?

If I am honest, I am one of them. Gen Y yoof is just Gen X yoof with more money. Hard to shake the drift habit. Other than a modest if constant Dewar’s habit, I hardly ever get only the same strong stuff on my weekly trip to the power house. I’ll buy anything in a pretty wrapper from any brewer with a reasonable reputation – except if it’s fruit flavoured, of course. No one needs that. Being an early Gen Xer, I have shared with my Gen Z teens a sense of disorder and unreliability. Both Ramones and tweed. The garden remains half planted. I root for whoever’s doing well in the NBA.

Does the wise business person chase that market or aim for something a little duller and more reliable? You know, soon Millennials won’t be the new market entrants. My kids will. Millennials? They’ll start having kids and paying the bills. Settling and settling down. Maybe by then they’ll need a flagship of their own. Something to remind them of when they were young. Or maybe sherry. Maybe the 2010s are the decade of fino sherries. Maybe.

This Is Reasonable Proof That Big Craft Is Losing It

This first hint something stunned was up came in a tweet from Andy Crouch:

Ha ha ha true craft beer. I give up.

Now, before you jump to “haters gonna hate” have a look at this response to that tweet: “Stopped saying “craft”, feels good.” That from the first guy I heard “haters gonna hate” from. You know big graft has already lost its grip when a man of faith such as an Alstrom mocks it. What’s the news they are discussing? This:

…Stone will be participating in True Craft as a founding member. The new venture has received an initial $100,000,000 brought forth from an investor group committed to the long term model. True Craft will welcome a handful of the best craft brewers in the business alongside Stone Brewing. Each brewery may participate in True Craft and in turn the company will provide minority investments to its members with minimal stipulations. All breweries will be aligned in the philosophical mindset of banding together to preserve craft while retaining full soul and control of their businesses for years to come. “This is about setting up a consortium so we can not just survive, but continue to thrive in a world in which craft is being co-opted by Big Beer,” said Steve Wagner, Stone President and co-founder. “This allows companies like Stone to follow an ethos that involves independence and passion for the artisanal. By investing in True Craft now, we can be confident that our vision is locked in beyond our professional lifetimes and we feel privileged to help others in our industry do the same.”

One of the more disappointing things about writing about beer for over a decade is how many folk writing about beer have little interest in studying history or understanding business – let alone tackling the reality that beer and brewing sits in an very wide intersection of human activity that has been regulated in our tradition for at least the best part of a thousand years. It’s a story like this that has the wheels, however, to interest an amateur brewing historian who practices in public construction and commercial law. Let me explain.

See that figure up there? $100 million. Sounds like a lot. Sounds like someone thinks that will make some sort of change. Don’t count on it. Long time readers will recall an early post of mine sweetly titled “Beer is Bigger Than…” in which I pointed out that all beer in Canada in 2003 was worth $7,864,437,000.00. It was bigger than wheat, charity and the Government of Nova Scotia. Thirteen years later, not much has changed. Beer is big and $100 million USD probably now represent maybe 1.5% of the Canadian brewing market. Expect the US market to be ten times that and in the NATO region market maybe double that again. In the global marketplace the fund is piddly. About the cost of building two 18 story apartment buildings or one water treatment plant for a small city. And that’s in Canadian funds – which is about 80% of US right now.

Not only is the fund small, notice also that it is an investment fund. It’s not a grants fund. The capital is to be recovered. A month ago, Jim Koch of Boston Beer was telling a tale of woe about the effect rapacious private equity will have on craft beer. We are toldFunds have finite lives…When those fund lines get to the end, [fund managers] have got to sell those assets.” It’s reported as doomsday. They sky is falling. Well, if it’s true of a professional fund then that reality is going to be true of this one, too. Interest will have to be paid and at some point the fund will cash out. These monies, too, will need to be repaid – passion or no passion.

And it’s also up against clever competition. Recently, the Boston Globe profiled private equity firm Fireman Capital Partners, the investment folk behind the expansion of Oskar Blues and the cash injection into Florida’s Cigar City Brewing. You think those guys are shaking in their boots over the prospect of a rival fund based on Stone’s ethos? Hardly. The experienced private equity players will out bid and out run their deals. It’s their business, not a hobby or a faith-based act of grace. While True Craft may “welcome a handful of the best craft brewers in the business alongside Stone Brewing” we are all too well aware that many of the best craft brewers have already made their minds up and moved elsewhere – whether under the wing of big beer or in partnership with existing private equity.

Finally, look again at one last loony line in the press release: “This allows companies like Stone to follow an ethos that involves independence and passion for the artisanal. By investing in True Craft now, we can be confident that our vision is locked in beyond our professional lifetimes…” Question #1: is Stone the central recipient of funding or an investor in the dreams of others? What is really going on? Question #2: can you see the oxymoron? How can one be independent and also go along with a “vision… locked in beyond our professional lifetimes” when that vision is someone else’s vision? The guy looking forward to retirement’s vision. Who needs that? The greatest thing at the moment in good beer are the thousands of actual small brewers coming forth independently in a complex wave of entrepreneurial vitality. They don’t need Stone or its money. It is a rather modest proposition to set up a small brewery and, in the right market, one that usually is greeted with enthusiasm by the buying public. Unless you suck.

It’s the same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. At the macro level, brewing is a business that undergoes continuous change that is usually misinterpreted as failure. Folk say temperance caused the collapse of breweries leading up to prohibition. It was actually the explosion of the railroad network in the latter 1800s which unleashed basic commercial efficiencies. Hooray for cheaper good beer for all! Folk suggest the old guard of big craft represent some sort of guru class who carved a niche of good beer forgetting that the entire world of consumer goods has raced towards diversity and excellence over the last four or five decades. The big craft era of 2005-15 is relatively late to the game. And, let’s be honest, if these guys didn’t become the millionaires and billionaires someone else would have. It’s not like they invented beer. Folk will say that good beer is in crisis and point to this odd news as some sort of life raft in an ocean of evil big beer and big money. Have none of it. This is just the new boss meeting the old boss all in the great cause of money. Which is good. Because that is success.

Rejoice. Big craft is dead. Brewing continues to move on and on, becoming more affordable and more excellent and more diverse and more interesting because this era of craft is dead.

Is That A Downward Or Sideways Craft Trend?

More bad news for craft in the media today. Over on Facebook, Lew shared stats reporting that on-premise US drinks sales were weak during the first 13-weeks of 2016. Total beer sales were particularly slow, declining 3.1% year-over-year. This was against particular trends showing Mich Ultra up 6%, Corona brands up 3.5% and Stella up 3.7%. Blue Moon dropped 3% while Sam Adams lost 13%. Conversely Goose Island was up 18% and Ballast Point a whopping 42% on-premise. That’s a pretty major set of shifts in the hospitality side of the beer trade. The not-good-news for beer continues as the Wall Street Journal tolds us late this afternoon that:

…for the first quarter ended March 26, Boston Beer reported a profit of $7 million, or 53 cents a share, down from $13.7 million, or $1 a share, a year earlier. Net revenue slipped 5.4%, to $188.8 million. Core shipment volume decreased 6%, to about 830,000 barrels. Boston Beer said it would focus increasingly on finding ways to cut costs and become more efficient after several years of rapid growth and capital investments.

That’s not good either. Big sales drop. Cutting costs and making efficiencies is not a growth strategy so much as one to slow a retraction. The article suggest job cuts are coming. No wonder James has been “trying to silently decrease his company’s share” as I noted last MayStaff, too.* I followed up with Lew and wondered if it was possible to break out the numbers he had into three classes – macro owned craft, big BA craft and little local craft – to see how broad this pattern was. But numbers are not kept like that given, as Lew said, I just made those classes up. To be fair, I didn’t just make them up but point taken.

Does this matter to you, the beer buyer? Likely not. This is not a bubble bursting. It’s a market shifting as they do. The sky’s perhaps not the limit quite as the BA promised in 2014. That’s fine. Many assumptions usually do not hold and the assumption that craft is marching in a straight line directly towards a 20% market share by 2020 is likely one of those that won’t pan out. But perhaps it’s still going to turn out to be the limit in a way – except that it’s made up of macro owned Goose Island instead of big craft’s Sam Adams. Would you care?

But maybe things develop in a different direction. Lew’s best point was in his reply to a comment: “I think it’s spirits that are taking the share. The thousands of smaller brands are still pretty damned small, and bourbon/Irish is on fire.” Change always comes and usually does so in large part unexpectedly. Craft beer could well split into local and macro with only big craft fading, too big and familiar to be considered authentic as the WSJ suggests. Link that to a far greater shift to wine or spirits coming out of nowhere. Could happen. Macro craft would like it to happen. Could be working towards just that right now. Will that matter much to you? Likely not other that it will be you buying the macro craft, wine or hard liquor. You’ll be happy.

*Shares dropped over 3% while the markets were open today and then another 10% after hours.

Are We Approaching Peak Hard Cider?

The All About Beer column by John Holl posted today begins “[h]ard cider continues to climb in popularity and now the largest producer in the country, Angry Orchard, has its own place to welcome customers….” This is odd because of the following news as reported by The Motley Fool a few weeks ago:

Similar to last quarter, Boston Beer’s founding chairman, Jim Koch, opted to be the bearer of bad news: “Our total company depletion trends of 6% in the third quarter of 2015 matched our year to date trends, but represent a slowing from our expectations, primarily as a result of weakness in our Samuel Adams brand due to increased competition and a slowing in the cider category”… Boston Beer CEO Martin Roper elaborated: “During the third quarter, we […] saw a slowing of the cider category, but believe Angry Orchard maintained its share even as competitors continue to enter or increase investment. We remain positive about the long term cider category potential, but short term growth is less certain. We are planning continued investments in advertising, promotional and selling expenses, as well as in innovation, commensurate with the opportunities and the increased competition that we see.”

I’ve heard a bit about cider in the lead up to American Thanksgiving like this piece on NPR’s Science Friday that focuses on Albany’s Nine Pin Cider. Like the All About Beer column, however, there was nothing indicating that the market for hard cider is softening in the way that Boston Beer has admitted. While most stories last year were all about the boom in cider, The Motley Fool saw clouds on the horizon as early as in May of 2014. That concern continues:

Total U.S. cider sales were down 3.4 percent in the 13 weeks ended Nov. 7, and the rate of decline accelerated to about 7 percent over the past four weeks, according to Nielsen. Four and five years ago, the rate of growth was in the heady triple-digits. Even a year back, the pace of growth was nearly 50 percent. “It’s been getting a lot of attention, because of all the huge growth rates in the past three to five years,” said Danelle Kosmal, vice president of the beverage alcohol practice at Nielsen. “It’s obviously difficult to sustain those triple-digit growth rates.”

So is it a case as I tweeted earlier today just that, “basically, Sam Adams bought a pretendy farm to suggest their cider-like product isn’t industrial” or is it worse? Is the farm one form of “the new packaging and advertising expenses taken on in the second half of 2015” in an effort to retain sales in a shrinking cider market? We get no guidance from the All About Beer column other than the oblique observation that the “vast majority of the company’s main brands will be produced at the Boston Beer facility in Ohio, with the focus of the new location being experimentation and small-batch only recipes.” As Jeff found in June 2014, getting a straight answer about Angry Orchard can be difficult. But at least he asked the questions. If the market for cider continues to shrink, it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for the farm to be re-purposed or even sold off.