Rambling Reviews 4.19.2017: Explorations on the Lighter Side

Last Monday, I rambled about craft breweries finding commercial success with some of the lighter beer styles. Now the craft brewing revolution would definitely be over if small breweries started pumping out bland and tasteless light ales and lagers chasing the almighty dollar. Thankfully, there’s plenty of great beers on the lighter side from small breweries proving these styles that are still interesting and flavorful when done right.

We’ll start with the weirdly wonderful G&T Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing. The first weirdly wonderful thing about this Gose is that it tastes absolutely nothing like a Gin and Tonic. Sure, there’s a lemon-lime thing going on, with some saltiness, a slight funkiness and a barely noticeable sourness. It’s really more like a Margarita, if anything, than a Gin and Tonic. The thing is, this unexpected combination is fun, refreshing and somehow works. I’ve gone on the record as not particularly liking Gose beers with all sorts of non-traditional additions that would make old world German brewmeisters spin in their graves but I really enjoyed this one.

Two brothers Golden AleNext, we go to a beer I discovered last week on vacation in the Chicago area where I grew up. It’s Prairie Path Golden Ale from Two Brothers Brewing. Described as “crafted to remove gluten but not flavor”, I was pleasantly surprised how lively and complex it turned out to be. It’s solid bready malt base with some light yeasty aromatics balanced with an earthy hop bitterness created a very pleasing composition of flavors. Walks the fine line between effortlessly drinkable without being boring.

 

Tooth and Claw Off Color

 

Finally, there’s is Tooth & Claw Dry Hopped Lager from Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, a beer inspired by Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex skeleton.in the world Sue is prominently displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History where the wife and I took the kids last week. It’s a cracker crisp Lager with a sharp, grassy T-Rex sized hop bite. In my book, lagers are defined by how well they hit these notes without extraneous and off flavor and Off Color just hits things right on the head with this one. I just loved the well executed simplicity.

 

Sue_at_Field_Museum
Sue, the T-Rex at Chicago’s Field Museum (photo credit)

Why are light beer styles so hot right now?

The humble, unassuming and often bland Golden Ale has become a thing. The same can be said of Saisons. Heck, even Michelob Ultra these days is flying off the shelves. Of course, not too long ago, the Gose-style was all the rage. Certainly beer fads come and go and some of them like fruit infused IPA’s and hazy IPA’s run counter to this.  But still, what’s up with all these lighter beers?  Did the upheaval of America’s craft brewing revolution just replace tasteless industrial lagers with slightly more flavorful light beers from smaller breweries?

Not exactly. IPA’s remain and strong and growing market and breweries still focus on finding the next hot IPA to bring to market. But it’s worth reminding folks our nation still drinks more Bud Light than all those IPA’s put together. Which brings me to a couple of observations about beer that helps put things in perspective.

  1. A lot of people like tasteless light industrial lagers.
  2. A lot of people who are either foodies or care about locally made food, don’t like IPA’s and other full flavored beer styles (ie. Barrel Aged Stouts)

These things fly into the face of typical craft beer rah-rah cheerleading. You know the story. We all suffered for decades as evil corporations churned out tasteless lagers. Then craft beer fought back with highly flavorful beers like IPA’s and the few enlightened who dared try them reached nirvana, causing a wave of beery innovation and entrepreneurship. What’s holding back craft beer is those evil corporations are still up to their tricks like buying out small brewers trying to dupe people into thinking they are “craft” and strangling smaller breweries with their strong distribution channel.

There is plenty of truth in all of that. But an inconvenient fact to that narrative is lots of people like light lagers and it’s no longer because they just haven’t been exposed to craft beer. Craft beer has been here for a while now and needs little or no introduction. I’ve met plenty of people who tried IPA’s and said “I’m fine with my Bud Lite, thank you very much.” And lord knows how many local-vores I’ve met who would really love to support their local brewery but don’t find a line-up full of aggressively flavored alcohol bombs particularly appealing.

So what’s a craft brewery to do? To find new business, especially where there’s a lot of craft beer market penetration, they can make some awfully light brews. When I first tried Firestone-Walker’s 805, I never expected it to be such a runaway hit. It’s expertly brewed but it’s one of most tasteless Golden Ales of this largely tasteless style. Of course, I’d say the same thing about Budweiser. A lot of people attribute the success of 805 to Firestone-Walker’s branding, which makes 805 a lot like Budweiser in more ways than one. Corporate breweries are finding new success by acting like small craft breweries. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising craft breweries are finding success by acting like corporate breweries.

(Photo from the Craft Beer Conference taken from a tweet  from Focus on the Beer.)

The Session #122: Imported Hazards

For this month’s Session, Christopher Barnes at “I Think About Beer” asks American bloggers: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?”

Hmmmm….I’m not sure what to do with this question. There are plenty of imported beers that aren’t from Europe, and a decent number of imported beers from Europe really can’t be described as “traditional European”. And of course, we could be here all night just debating what the “craft beer market” is.

Anyway, let’s just say I like imported beers. Mexican food is better with Pacifico Classico. Ditto for Sapporo with sushi. Imported beers add that extra note to authenticate these cultural experiences. Unfortunately for beer importers, this often creates a rather limited market. Sapporo released their Premium Black Lager last fall in part to extend their reach in the United States beyond sushi bars, going so far as to tout their beer as “well suited for pairing with a variety of hearty and spicy dishes from around the world, including traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines.”  I learned about Sapporo Premium Black recently from a Sapporo representative pitching Sapporo Premium Black as an alternative to drinking Stout on St. Patrick’s day. Marketing a Japanese beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or to enjoy with Wienerschnitzel seems incredibly desperate. You’d think they’d have a lot more success saying “Sapporo tastes great with burgers” and leaving it there.

As he tends to do with all things these days, President Trump threatens to turn this whole imported beer thing upside down as he contemplates import tariffs. I would not want to be the Director of US Sales for say, a Chinese or Mexican brewery right now. It’s probably not easy being a European importer either.

As for traditional European imports it looks like our host wants us to talk about, they are a great avenue to learn beer’s long European history. I just wish they weren’t so damn expensive. Which underlies another problem with imports. Beer is relatively heavy and often sold in breakable glass bottles, neither of which make the product cost effective to ship long distances. Living in Northern California, I can find lots of great beers from local breweries at lower prices. Why buy imports?  

Well, I learned to really appreciate how America transformed English Ales once I started sampling a few English imports. Then again, I could also learn to appreciate English Ales by taking a short drive to Freewheel Brewing in Redwood City, CA which specializes in cask-conditioned English-style Ales. I’ve sampled imports from other European countries and think I understand how they taste in their homeland.  I use the word “think” because I often wonder how fresh the product is, travelling all that way and sitting on the shelf until the day I buy it. More than I few times I’ve been intrigued enough to consider buying an import, only to look closer, notice dust all over the bottle and move on. No point in spending a lot of money on what might be old stale beer.

Our Session host is an import beer manager at a speciality beer distributor. He has a hard job.

Bart Watson Talks About the New Realities for Craft Breweries

Bart Watson has one of the coolest jobs in America. He’s the Economist for the Brewers Association and the man behind the widely anticipated numbers documenting the brewing revolution going on in the United States.

Unfortunately, the latest figures don’t look so good. Given the rather modest 6% growth figures released by the Brewers Association last week after years of strong growth in the 10-20% range, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the craft beer industry, at least the industry defined as small and independent by the Brewers Association, is entering a market correction.  Signs this has already happened include the business failures of San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers and Metalcraft Fabrication, a Portland supplier of brewing equipment based in Portland. In a brief interview, Bart Watson delivered rapid fire responses to my questions about the state of craft beer.

Q: In 2014, small and independent brewers grew 18% by volume.  In 2015, that number was 12%.  Now in 2016, that number has dropped to 6%.  Is the party over?

Bart Watson: We’re certainly entering a new and more competitive phase.  There’s just a lot more breweries and larger breweries have gotten more aggressive.  It’s also becoming less instructive to look at the national as a whole and instead look at certain regions.  In some areas of the country where craft does well, when you combine craft market share plus imports, you’re looking at 60-70% market share.  It’s tough for a craft brewery to grow a lot in a place like that. A key to brewery growth will be how to adapt and enter regions where craft beer has a lot less penetration.

Q: Speakeasy has gone into receivership due to a failed expansion launched in 2015.  Metalcraft Fabrication is going out of business for the same reason.  These were two solid craft beer companies who expanded in more optimistic times.  Are we going to see more stories like this?

Bart Watson: I think we will more see more of this, that’s part of business in competitive times.  The last five years in craft beer were not normal.  Everyone could succeed. Now we’re seeing a new competitive industry, and companies will need to be more cautious.  Companies that were overly optimistic will run into trouble and I think we’ll see some more failures.

Q: Some of the beer with biggest growth in 2016 include Goose Island IPA (81.7%), Lagunitas IPA and Little Sumpin’ (20.3% and 45.2%), and Firestone Walker 805 Blonde Ale (74.4%)….none of these were from small independent breweries.  Considering small independent brewers grew at only 6%, do these numbers validate a lot of people’s concerns about brewery acquisitions by large corporations.

Bart Watson: We’ll see.  If you look at these things more holistically, it’s a mixed bag.  Shock Top and BlueMoon didn’t have good years.  Craft beer plus big business doesn’t automatically translate to big success.  Some of these growth figures for the beers you point out are already slowing down.  We’ll see how it plays out in the long term.

Certainly, when you put big money and distribution behind a craft brand, that can be powerful combination.  Large breweries are trying to replicate what succeeded for local breweries….tasting rooms, festivals…trying to be like smaller brands.  We’ll see what consumers think about this.

 

Having survived a couple market corrections in the fiber optics and solar panel industries in my professional life, I know all too well what happens to smart, seemingly careful people who get trapped in expansion plans that are no longer sustainable when the market suddenly slows. It’s easy to get caught up with the latest news, figures and speculation on market corrections, forgetting that lots of people’s jobs, dreams and livelihoods are suddenly on the line like never before. Best of luck to everyone in the industry dealing with beer’s new realities.

(Bart Watson photo from the Brewers Association)

 

 

Contemplating Last Week’s Tepid Statistics from the Brewers Association

The craft beer party might be over. The Brewers Association (BA) released their annual growth statistics for small and independent craft brewers in 2016, calculating a 6% volume growth with a corresponding growth of 10% by retail dollar for the year. While those numbers are good for most industries and suggest the brewing climate remains healthy, they’re way down from 2014, when the industry grew 18% by volume, 22% by retail dollar and 2015, where the numbers were 13% by volume, 16% by retail dollar.

2016_ba_growth-infographic_abridged_square

The Brewers Association conceded the brakes had been applied to all the go-go growth of the past few years as BA economist Bart Watson intoned “Small and independent brewers are operating in a new brewing reality still filled with opportunity, but within a much more competitive landscape.” It should be pointed out these numbers reflect “craft breweries”, as defined by the Brewers Association, which depending on your opinion, may or may not actually reflect the health of craft brewing. The BA craft brewery definition excludes breweries with large corporate investment or ownership, so breweries own by large corporations or investment groups like Boulevard Brewing, Goose Island, St. Archer, Lagunitas, or Ballast Point no longer qualify.  These and other breweries with similar corporate ownership are pulled out of the BA’s analysis.

The numbers back up what we’re all starting to see: The business climate for independent breweries is definitely getting tougher. Just this month, San Francisco’s Speakeasy, ceased operations for about a week before going into receivership due to failed expansion plans launched in 2015.  Portland’s Metalcraft Fabrication, once a successful supplier of innovative brewing equipment sold to craft breweries has also shut down, with Metalcraft co-founder Charlie Frye citing greatest factor their demise due to “...several unforeseen challenges associated with our expansion.”  There will always be failures in any industry, even in good times, but Speakeasy and Metalcraft were two rocks in craft beer, yet both  embarked on failed expansions during craft beer’s heady growth that weren’t sustainable. Given that Speakeasy and Metalcraft were hardly the only two established craft beer businesses engaging in major expansions during those optimistic times, there’s a good chance more failures will follow.

Were their any craft beer success stories in 2016? Depending on your view of craft, yes there were.  Goose Island’s IPA recorded an astonishing 81.7% growth in 2016. Lagunitas IPA and Little Sumpin’ Ale sales grew 20.5% and 45.2% respectively. Firestone Walker’s 805 Blonde Ale took off by 74.4%. What do all these beers have in common? They were all from breweries with corporate ownership, not included in the Brewers Associate figures, with the extensive distribution networks to drive that growth, which many small independent breweries lack.

While there were certainly some small independent success stories and corporate craft flops, the concerns many small and independent breweries raised about recent corporate acquisitions seem validated.  Corporate breweries are clearly putting the squeeze on the independents, and their distribution networks seems to be the key.  The smaller independents will continue to do well, as long as their ambitions are modest. But if you’re a independent brewery who took considerable financial risks to ride the once fast growing wave of craft beer, watch out! Those aggressive plans may lead to very tough times ahead in the current market.

 

 

AB InBev’s Golden Road to Open a Brewery in Oakland – Can they successfully transplant into the Bay Area?

The East Bay Express article seemed ominous enough. Under the headline “Corporate Beer Overlords AB InBev to Open Golden Road ‘Craft’ Beer Garden in North Oakland”, readers were warned  Golden Road Brewing filed permits with the city of Oakland to open a beer garden on 40th Street between Broadway and Manila Avenue. Golden Road became part of the growing empire of A-B InBev brands late 2015 when they were acquired by the multi-national brewing giant.  The short article ends with a quote from Tom McCormick of the California Craft Brewers Association claiming A-B InBev’s takeover of breweries like Golden Road is the biggest threat to the craft beer industry. The article seems little more than a call to arms to be spread on social media to rally the masses against big evil corporate beer.

Fair enough. People should be informed what companies are behind beer brands like Golden Road to make informed choices. But the “big beer evil, local beer good” vibe to the article seems rather dated, especially given the tremendous transformation in the brewing industry in just the past few years and the triumphs of “craft” over large corporate breweries. Still, the message still has a lot of resonance given AB InBev is no longer a lumbering giant resorting to using talking frogs to sell tasteless lagers. In just the past couple years, AB InBev co-opted the craft beer playbook, buying up craft breweries to create a local presence in major markets, acquiring Seattle’s Elysian, Oregon’s 10 Barrel, and LA’s Golden Road as part of that strategy on the West Coast.

Notice there are no Northern California breweries on that list. Over the past couple years, Elysian, 10 Barrel and Golden Road six-packs and tap handles popped up all over the Bay Area, and AB InBev has demonstrably built up a following in the Bay Area with their craft brands. But what’s going on in Oakland is a step further than that. By building an actual Golden Road brewery in the Oakland, AB InBev is effectively attempting to establish themselves as a local Bay Area brewery, a plan as diabolical as it is smart. Of course, most people are in favor of things like new beer gardens to go to and new businesses which increase employment, raising these sort of positives about AB InBev’s investment in Oakland makes sense, but seems like missing the point.

Of course, the big questions are: “Can AB InBev pull this off?” and “Could they be planning to create breweries in other Bay Area neighborhoods?”  Well, looking at some of the social media comments on the East Bay Express article, success for AB InBev seems like a good bet. While there’s plenty of dissent like “Nope, not stepping foot on the premises”, I noticed a surprisingly number of counterpoints. “I agree that this seems a great development for North Oakland” wrote one commentor.  AB InBev is muscling into the Bay Area to become a “local” brewery under their craft brand Golden Road, and the questions is not so much can they pull off this audacious feat, but how successful they’ll be at it.

Rambling Reviews 3.27.2017: New releases from Magnolia, Sapporo, and Alpine

Enjoying a can of Kalifornia Kolsch
on my back patio

This edition of Rambling Reviews features beers from three breweries who successfully persuaded me to sing the praises of their beer to the millions of readers of this blog tuning in breathlessly to learn what beers they should be drinking. That’s right, today’s reviews are all about free beers sent to me in hopes I would write nice things about them.

We’ll start with long time San Francisco brewery Magnolia Brewing, who want you to know their Kalifornia Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA can now be bought in cans, as they roll out their distribution in the San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles areas. That’s right, no longer do you need to venture into the Upper Haight neighborhood full of stores selling bongs and Grateful Dead T-shirts to get a fresh pint of Magnolia. I’ve enjoyed a few pints of Kalifornia Kolsch and rather than go into a detailed flavor decomposition of the brew, let me just tell you this: It’s a damn good Kolsch. As for Proving Ground IPA, Brewmaster Dave McLean describes it in a press release as “showcasing a hybrid approach to IPA, marrying an aggressive, American hop profile with an English malt backbone built around our favorite malt, Marris Otter.” And indeed this brew has the wonderful solid biscuit-like malt and subdued, leafy, grass hop character one finds in a good English IPA, with some citrus in the background to remind you it comes from California. Magnolia’s website claims this IPA checks in at 100 ibu’s, but it seems more like 60 in this refreshingly well balanced brew. At any rate, it’s not the usual West Coast hops and alcohol explosion. Instead, Proving Ground is a creative yet traditional dimension to the IPA style.

Then there’s Sapporo Premium Black Lager. Now I’ve enjoyed Sapporo’s regular Lager with sushi a few times, but it’s never really been one of my “go-to” beers. Unfortunately, lot’s of other people feel the same way about Sapporo, and they’ve faced declining sales in the US as the brand is largely limited to Asian restaurants. Sapporo Black Lager, released last fall, is an effort to reverse that trend, which explains in part why Sapporo touts their Black Lager for pairing with “traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines and crème brûlée”. One thing going for it is lots of nice chocolate aromas. It’s crisp with very deep roasted flavors on a broad spectrum from a little toasty up until the point burnt notes are detectable.  This good news it’s mostly bitter chocolate flavors that dominate in the light brew. Nice beer, but will people choose to drink Sapporo Premium Black Lager with Wienerschnitzel or enchiladas? That seems like kind of a stretch.

Finally, we end with Alpine Beer Company’s Windows Up IPA, which debuted just this year.  “I am especially excited for our newest IPA addition, Windows Up, to hit the market,” excudes Alpine Head Brewer Shawn McIlhenny in a press release.  “It’s got big hop aromatic and a really bold flavor profile with very little bitterness; this beer is a home run.” Given that Alpine has made their reputation on big hoppy beers, it’s no surprise this one is a real dank monster. The good news is there’s plenty of complexity and depth to round out all danky, cannabis-ness character, with as some fruity apricot, light tart cherries and piney finish also in the mix. All those big flavors get plenty of support on a solid malt substrate. It’s not just a beer crammed with a bunch of big flavors, it’s an impressive composition of all those flavors.  Yes, I do believe Alpine hit one out of the park.