Category Archives: beer people

The Goose Island Sale: Another Reason to Go Local

Like many others, I was none too pleased to hear of Anheuser-Busch/InBev’s purchase of Goose Island. However, I was less concerned with Goose Island’s motivations than I was with AB/InBev’s. As far as Goose Island goes, Greg and John Hall were understandably weary from running the day-to-day operations of a business for as long as they had. They wanted the company to grow and needed an infusion of capital. No problems there.

However, knowing what I know of AB/InBev’s sales strategies, I will likely stop buying what little Goose Island product I already did. My previous purchases consisted entirely of Bourbon County Stout, Sofie, Pere Jacques and Juliet so I won’t put much of a dent in the bottom line, but I will miss those products. What are the motivations behind my new shopping strategy? Well, as far as I can tell, AB/InBev bought Goose Island for two reasons. Firstly, Goose Island is an attractive, profitable commodity with lots of room for growth. It’s a great addition to AB/InBev’s portfolio. Secondly, AB/InBev seems to be trying to shore up its slipping market share by snatching up one of the companies that put a decent-sized dent into that market share in the Midwest.

In other words, if I buy a Goose Island product now, the profits go into AB/InBev’s coffers (to at least some degree). I cannot abide such an outcome. Go to the supermarket beer section and you’ll find out why. See that giant wall of Bud Light products? How many different formats do you count? Ten? Twelve? Fifteen? The “wall of product” sales strategy is despicable. Glass bottles, aluminum bottles, aluminum cans, all of various sizes, all in boxes and packs of different quantity, all limiting consumer choice (taking shelf space from competitors) by flooding the market with a load of different formats that all contain THE SAME PRODUCT! It makes me a little sick to my stomach.

But I’m not all that worried that I won’t buy Goose Island products anymore. Surely some in the Midwest, for whom Goose Island is a regular purchase, will experience greater difficulty. In my case though, I will simply continue to focus on the plethora of world-class, local products readily available for my consumption. I need only look a couple hours to South to San Diego to find Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey, Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, etc, etc, ad infinitum. One can likely make the same argument in the Midwest. There is no shortage of non-AB/InBev-owned breweries in the middle of the country turning out well-made, readily available craft beer.

My point, then, is simple. In the short term, the sale of Goose Island is really much ado about nothing. As long as those who care about where their money goes keep themselves educated, they can make informed purchases. If you don’t care about AB/InBev’s sales strategies, then you needn’t change a thing. If you do care about those sales strategies, and they make you a little queasy, then don’t buy beer from companies in which AB/InBev holds a stake.

In the long term, I suppose we’ll see whether AB/InBev tries to use Goose Island as a means to muscle smaller beer producers out of the market. If they do, I am confident that there will be a strong consumer pushback. There are few, if any, consumer bases that are better or more informed than the craft beer-drinking public. And their ranks are growing every day. People care more than ever about where their purchases are coming from and where their money is going because it’s easier to find out than ever before. The internet, and the ready availability of relatively reliable information is the great equalizer for smaller companies whose focus is quality and integrity. Let’s hope those companies continue to leverage the internet and social media to get their message out and keep the public well (and accurately) informed.

Photo Credit: AB/InBev Goose Mock-Up: Girl’s Guide to Beer

Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

You’ve heard the names ad nauseum in the craft beer world. Darkness, Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. These are beers crafted in (necessarily) small batches from very well-respected breweries. They have dates on the calendar dedicated to their releases. They are the subjects of post after post (after post, after post) on beer-related internet fora. They can command sums 10 times their purchase price on eBay. And that’s all awesome. It’s great to see that type of interest in craft beer.

But these beers are also sources of alienation, consternation and anger. People who wait in line for hours for them are nonetheless precluded from purchasing them. People who wake up early and hit “refresh” constantly on a website to obtain release day tickets are shut out by those with faster internet connections. Those less fortunate inevitably take to the internet to call out the brewery or bar that wasn’t able to get them the beer they so desperately desired. It’s a bad situation for all involved.

There is no beer that exemplifies this dichotomy of experience better than Pliny the Younger. The Triple IPA produced by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA seems to have a life of its own. Those who are able to obtain it feel as though the clouds have parted, bathing them in the light of the divine. Those who are unable, well, let’s just say they don’t feel that way.

Getting the beer usually involves a long wait in a line outside of a bar that has previously announced the date and time at which the beer will be tapped. This is where the problem starts. In this case, the demand far outstrips the supply. If the bar is lucky, the 5-gallon keg it gets will serve around 55-60 people (and that’s a BIG maybe). When faced with a line of 100+, there is no avoiding the fact that some people are going to walk away disappointed.

But how disappointed ought they be? That depends on a number of factors. The first that ought to be noted is the transparency of the establishment serving the beer. The bar runs the risk of losing some business by telling people that everyone past “Person X” in line won’t get the beer. However, one could argue that a lot more business is lost in pissed off customers if someone waits in line without knowing how much beer there is to go around.

Assuming the bar has told those waiting that there are “x” number of pours available, then the patrons are able to make an informed decision. If people still get angry, it’s because the specter of entitlement has reared its ugly head. Somewhere along the line, a number of beer geeks (a term I generally employ affectionately) decided that they should have access to every beer they desire. When they are shut out, they use any number of disparaging terms for the brewery, bar or proprietor in question. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Either way, objectivity is usually tossed out the window.

And this is the real issue with beer hype. On the one hand, it’s great to see a bunch of interest in craft beer. The mere fact that people would wait for hours to obtain a single beer is testament to the ever-growing popularity of the product. On the other hand, such hype leads to a host of unintended consequences.

For neophytes who are just getting into craft beer, the difficulty of dealing with such releases paints a skewed picture of the industry. Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. It’s about supporting an industry that gives a damn about its customers. But if your experience of the industry begins and ends with waiting in line for Pliny the Younger, you probably won’t be around for long if you aren’t able to obtain any.

For those who are already full-fledged enthusiasts, the view also becomes skewed. Sure, Pliny the Younger is a wonderful beer. It is clearly world class, and probably the best in its “style.” However, there are a ton of other beers that are probably as good, or at least close, that can be readily obtained. No lines. No disappointment. No reason to be pissed off. Also, there’s something to be said for discovering the next awesome beer rather than braving the masses to drink one that everyone already knows is good. This part of the chase gets lost in the hype.

There is no elegant solution for this issue. The brewers literally can’t make enough of their most hyped beers. If they are higher in alcohol or sour (and they usually are), they just take too long to make. In order to produce more, the brewery would have to sacrifice its financial wellbeing and also its core brands in the process. Understandably, they’d rather a lot of people enjoy beer they can readily produce than appease a few more myopic rare beer chasers.

So it comes down to this. If you go chasing a beer like Pliny the Younger, know what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll wait in a long line. You may not get the beer. But look on the bright side. You’ll be at a beer bar. There will be other awesome stuff to drink. And you’ll be around a lot of like-minded individuals. If you don’t chase after it, you can take solace in the huge world of incredible beer that is otherwise currently available. The explosion of craft beer in America has made it possible for most to obtain a world-class beer merely by stepping down to the local bottle shop. So go take that trip and revel in how lucky you are to live in a world where it’s ridiculously easy to find great beer.

Yours Truly on New Brew Thursday at Library Alehouse! (Video)

Check out the video, where we drink Kern River Brewing Citra DIPA and pair it with some wonderful Alehouse food. I think it’s pretty rad. Be sure to click the links on the right to New Brew Thursday and Library Alehouse.

What do you mean you want a “light” beer?

You’ve heard it dozens of times (if not more). You’re sitting at the bar at your local purveyor of fermented beverage and someone walks up to order a beer. Bewildered by a selection of beers whose names and tap handles are unfamiliar, that someone says to the bartender, “Just give me something light.”

Here’s where the trouble starts. What the hell does “light” mean? For most, “light” is a color descriptor. A lot of folks have the common misperception that color provides an accurate indication of the strength, mouthfeel and degree of flavor in a given beer. This probably has mostly to do with the fact that Guinness is served nitrogenated. While Guinness is a comparatively small beer by ABV (4.2%), nitrogenation gives it a heavier mouthfeel, thus giving people the perception that it is a heavy beer (when it in fact has less calories than Budweiser).

The “light” phenomenon described above probably also has to do with the pale straw color of most mass-produced American lagers. These beers have very little body, very little alcohol and very little flavor. Further, they are the American beers with which most people are familiar. However, there are beers of similar color, such as Berliner Weisse, which have a comparatively huge amount of flavor. There are also beers of similar color (close enough anyway) that have a ton more body and more than double the alcohol, such as Belgian Tripels. Given the existence of such beers, perhaps “light” isn’t the best choice of words when describing what one wants at a bar.

Given the misconceptions of the general public, one must divine what “light” means. Firstly, people tend to be afraid of “dark” beers for one reason or another (again, Guinness probably has a lot to do with it). It stands to reason that people want a beer that’s light in color. But we can’t stop there. It is not however, a problem to work within the “light” color parameter (that issue can be worked out later).

What does “light” say about other preferences? As far as flavor goes it does not necessarily mean that someone wants less flavor. It may just mean that the beer drinker wants lighter, more delicate flavors. In other words, a Tripel and an IPA may be close to each other in color, but the person who asked for a “light” beer will probably be more pleased with the Tripel. The huge bitterness of an American IPA is often one of the final flavor frontiers conquered by the nascent craft beer enthusiast. However, the delicate, fruity esters and generally dry character of a Tripel may be right up someone’s alley.

Mouthfeel is an issue too. The person ordering a “light” beer probably wants one that doesn’t have too much weight. That’s fine. There are plenty of flavorful, pale-colored beers that don’t coat the mouth and punch the palate. An exemplar is Allagash White. Outside of Pierre Celis, there is no finer Belgian-Style Witbier in production. It has huge, spicy, fruity flavor but it also dances on the tongue and has a crisp, dry finish. It is the ultimate gateway beer and one that anyone ordering a “light” beer ought to be thrilled with.

So next time that hapless soul wends his or her way to the bar and asks for a “light” beer, be a mensch and ask them what they mean by “light.” Are they talking about color? Weight? Alcohol? Flavor? There are enough places out there where a craft beer enthusiast knows more than (or isn’t as busy as) the staff and can provide a great recommendation to a future craft beer convert if only the neophyte is asked to elaborate.


Craft Beer: More Costly. Better Value.

When spending more makes sense.

To borrow from Sam Calagione’s business philosophy in Brewing Up a Business, it strikes me that education has to be a very large component of the expansion of the craft beer movement beyond the realm of the enthusiast. One reason that the consumer needs to be educated is because craft beer costs more, on average, than industrial commodity beer. If the consumer merely sees “Beer 1” and “Beer 2,” and Beer 2 is cheaper, then the rational decision is to buy Beer 2. Aside from price, the consumer doesn’t know the difference between the two products. Beer is just beer.

The craft beer community must continue its efforts at education in order to give the consumer a reason to buy Beer 1 where Beer 1 is the pricier craft beer and Beer 2 is the industrial commodity beer. The question then becomes what sort of education is necessary, or desirable. Now let me stop here and acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people who will never be ardent craft beer drinkers. That’s fine. I don’t judge them negatively. If they like to drink Bud Light that’s their business. All I will do is kindly tell them that I think there is beer out there that is a better value, even if it costs more. If they choose to inquire further, then I am more than willing to explain myself.

Also, I will acknowledge that for some, beer is merely a means to a drunken end. That’s also fine. As long you don’t hurt anybody but yourself I couldn’t care less. I will however advise you that there are cheaper and more efficient means to reach your desired result (read: clear liquor).

I suppose craft beer education for me comes down to a single concept: value. Every effort at education must be geared towards letting the consumer know why craft beer is a better value even though it’s more costly, perhaps even because it’s more costly (two italicized words in one sentence, eek!).

Why do I find craft beer more valuable than industrial commodity beer? First, craft beer has personality. I don’t just mean the hop-related pun names or the label art or the fact that the beer is generally more flavorful. What I mean is that there are people behind craft beer, rather than mega-corporations whose main goal is to raise their stock price. Where craft beer is your local restaurant whose owner cares about the food coming out of the kitchen, industrial beer is McDonald’s, a faceless entity churning out low-cost, low-flavor food designed more to make money than it is to satiate. In other words, part of the value of craft beer is knowing that my dollar is going to a person who cares about what they make.

Another portion of the value quotient is enjoyment. As I said above, if your enjoyment is derived solely from getting blitzed, there are better ways to “enjoy” (and they’re cheaper too). However, if you care about the contents of your glass and want to drink something that not only slakes your thirst, but dazzles your tastebuds, craft beer, almost regardless of cost, is a higher value proposition. Here’s how I explain it. Let’s take a six-pack of Budweiser and a six-pack of Deschutes Black Butte Porter. Each sixer contains 72 ounces of beer and roughly the same amount of alcohol (making degree of possible intoxication a nullity as far as decision-making goes). Let’s say Bud is on sale for $4.99 a six-pack and Black Butte is going for $8.99. I’m buying Black Butte every time because I derive greater value from Black Butte.

I will not enjoy a single ounce of that Bud sixer. Thus, every cent of that $4.99 is flushed down the drain as far as I’m concerned. However, I am virtually guaranteed to enjoy every ounce of my $8.99 sixer of Black Butte. Thus, it is a much better value. Beer is a luxury, not a necessity. No one needs to buy beer to live. So, if you’re going to spend money on beer, shouldn’t your dollar go farther? If thirst-quenching is the motive, buy a soda. If getting drunk is your motive, buy hard liquor. However, if your goal is to truly enjoy the beverage in your glass (and maybe catch a little buzz, which I willingly admit is quite pleasant) then your money is better spent on craft beer than industrial beer.

“But Alex,” you say, “I can get twice as much Bud as I can Black Butte.” I say, you’re missing the point. When drinking a beer with full flavor, satisfaction can come in a few ounces, rather than a few bottles. Greater enjoyment of the beer itself makes the beer a better value and also argues for more moderate consumption.

Let’s say you agree with me that craft beer tastes better, but you still can’t justify the cost. I would answer that good ingredients, and more of them, cost more money. You don’t expect to pay the price of a gourmet burger at McD’s. And why not? Because the components of the burger are of a lower quality and the labor to make the burger was cheaper and McD’s has no ambience and no personality. The same is true of your beer. Industrial beer is often made with one of the cheapest commodities there is in America: corn. The government subsidizes corn production to the point where farmers have no choice but to grow it. Since the price is artificially depressed, it makes a great substitute for barley; that is, if you don’t really care what your beer tastes like and you’re merely trying to capitalize on economies of scale.

Craft beer on the other hand, makes a point of using the best ingredients. Craft brewers must take this approach in order to ensure that their beer tastes good, because they can’t compete on price. Do some of them use corn occasionally? Sure. But they do so because it helps them achieve a certain flavor, not because they want to produce their product as cheaply as possible. They also generally use a helluvalot more hops than industrial brewers. Hops are expensive, but they contribute oodles of flavor and aroma in the hands of a talented brewer. Craft beer thus justifies its cost many times over.

So you say you can’t afford craft beer all the time and you want some booze in your life. That’s fine. Grab a handle of vodka. Take a few shots. Problem solved. Way cheaper per ounce of alcohol than buying industrial beer. However, if you aim to truly enjoy the product in your glass (and catch a little buzz), then buy craft beer (or fine spirits, which I also enjoy; pick your poison). You’ll spend more money, but you’ll get a better value.

Craft Beer is Awesome. Craft Beer People are Better: My Time at GABF 2010

If you’re reading this blog, it’s a fair bet that you’re familiar with craft beer’s burgeoning popularity. You know that, unlike in the late 1990s, the majority of new breweries, brewpubs and bars that are opening are doing so for the right reasons. Rather than trying to ride the hype train to the fast money station, they are truly passionate about their product.

Such passion means that while the quantity of craft beer has exploded in recent years, the quality has gone up as well. There is so much well made beer available to most consumers that it boggles the mind. I can go to my local Whole Foods and find any number of world-class beers. However, as great as craft beer is and continues to become, the people around craft beer are even better. They are what truly moves the needle for me.

First, I must give a huge thank you to my hosts in Denver: PJ (HERE and HERE) and Kell (HERE and HERE). I had the good fortune of visiting Denver and staying with these fine gentlemen once before GABF and their hospitality never ceases to amaze me. The best part is, they accept payment for lodging in epic beer. To all those planning a trip for the festival, I highly recommend visiting the city on an “off” week first. I also highly recommend finding a local who knows where to go.

Without my hosts I would likely have gone without visiting such local treasures as Biker Jim’s Gourmet Hot Dog Stand (the reindeer was outstanding), Rackhouse Pub (get some Stranahan’s and an order of mac ‘n’ cheese and you’ll be a happy camper) and the dangerously awesome Whiskey Bar ($9 for a healthy pour of 15-year Pappy, are you kidding me!?). In other words, if you happen to visit Denver outside of GABF, find my friends on twitter and let them enlighten you.

I’ll spare you any details about the festival itself as those have been covered (read: beaten to death) everywhere else on the web. I will however, point to you to PJ’s article about Thursday at GABF since our days were remarkably similar. I will also concur with PJ on the excellence that was the Farm to Table Pavilion. I was lucky enough to find a ticket to the pavilion on Friday night and it was easily the highlight of the festival for me. Combine the lack of drunk of people with beer illuminati and smoked mashed potatoes and I’ll leave the math to you.

Rather, my weekend really ramped up when I went to visit New Belgium on Friday morning with the folks from Harbor Distributing and several other members of the Los Angeles beer industry.

Upon arrival at New Belgium, we were led inside the brewery and given “Beer Geek” buttons, which we were told would be our tour passes. You can see the sweet button on the strap of my messenger bag below.

It is this type of touch that typifies craft beer people. We recognize in each other a childlike enthusiasm for the product. We aim to enjoy ourselves and encourage those around us to do the same. We are cheeky, fun-loving, and wonderfully geeky folk. I still have the button on my bag and I sincerely hope that people continue to ask me about it.

We were then led into the taproom, where we were invited to a full glass of the beer of our choice. Those who know me know that I get excited about sour beers. Sour beers that can’t be found in a bottle are all the more exciting. It was thus a natural that I have a glass (or three) of Tart Lychee. It’s basically New Belgium’s blonde sour beer, Felix (the dark sour is called Oscar, gotta love an “Odd Couple” reference) blended with lychee.

It was then that I received the most awesome safety glasses ever (picture below). Not only do they make you look like a different person, but sometimes that person is Harry Caray (ask Kell about that one, as his impression was a source of great mirth).

Then Eric Salazar came out to give us a tour of the place. You know, the same Eric whose name is on Eric’s Ale. We were enlightened about how ridiculously efficient and environmentally friendly the brewery is (read more here).

After we left the brewhouse, we got to the true geekery, the foeders. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘foeder’, it’s basically a gigantic oaken vat in which one ages beer. In New Belgium’s case, the beers in the foeders are Oscar and Felix at various ages and flavor profiles. Of course, I (and several other members of my party) took the obligatory “I’m leaning on the foeder” photo:

We then received a tour of the bottling facility, which is very loud and just plain neat (see video below).

Then we were treated to more free beer (read: more Tart Lychee) and free gourmet snacks from the restaurant-quality kitchen at New Belgium. I’m talking fine cheeses, exotic desserts, charcuterie, etc. The whole place was basically beer geek Disneyland. If you’re every anywhere near Fort Collins, try to arrange a visit. It may not be as in-depth as the one I was fortunate enough to make, but I’m positive it will knock your socks off nonetheless.

Such places are, in my mind, truly indicative of the collective attitude of the craft beer community. It is just that, a community. There are no “employees” at New Belgium. Everybody who works there owns stock, so they are referred to as “Coworkers.” Every part of the brewery seems to have been infected with the collective enthusiasm of the staff and the beer geeks who visit the place. New Belgium clearly wants everyone to enjoy themselves and they want to share their joy (and beer) with everyone else because it brings happiness to those who experience it. Damn, I’ve gone and gotten sappy. So it goes. I’m talking about beer people, the most awesomest people in the world.