15 THINGS CRAFT BEER FANS THINK (BUT NOBODY SAYS)!

This is an article that can be found here. It was sent to me by my cousin who currently works in the craft brewing industry and it is a very cool read. Pour yourself some sort of beer, hopefully a Wee-Heavy if you can find one, and enjoy!

beertaboos

It’s a glorious era for the American beer drinker. We’ve got talented and passionated brewers making stellar beers in every single state across the country, an IPA revolution that’s brought us hops we didn’t even know existed, and a community that’s spilled over beyond our borders to inspire folks in countries as far-flung as Norway and Japan. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that 20 years ago, the landscape was a whole lot different, with just a few brave breweries on the front lines struggling to convert the first wave of craft-beer fanatics.

But just because times are swell doesn’t mean everything’s all good. The industry is at a cross-roads, ushering in the third-wave of craft brewers and drinkers while shaking off its image as a mere underdog. As tap and shelf space becomes more competitive than ever, breweries have to balance their “we’re all in this together” camaraderie with a survival instinct that doesn’t always mean playing fair. And as the age of bigger-means-better extreme brewing plateaus (this means of differentiation from mass-market beers eventually became the prevailing attitude in the business), craft-brew fans are forced to reconsider what they really want from their beers, and to call BS on gimmicks that don’t deliver.

So, just as we’ve done with kale and sketchy fish, we decided it was time to open up a conversation about some big issues in the beer world that too often get swept under the rug. Do we believe in all of these statements 100%? No—as you’ll notice, some of them are even at odds with one another. But these are topics that tend to come up with brewers, publicans, and fellow beer lovers once a few pints go down the hatch and taboos go out the window.

Good beer and honest conversation have always been fine bedfellows, so let’s talk, shall we?

contractbrewing

YOUR FAVORITE “LOCAL” BEER MIGHT BE CONTRACT-BREWED THREE STATES AWAY. 

Building a production brewery is an insanely expensive undertaking. The costs for equipment, space, and licensing can easily top $1 million before the first sack of grain is ever ordered. To keep costs down, some fledgling brewing professionals launch small-scale nanobreweries. But that’s backbreaking work for barely any profit. In lieu of investing in infrastructure, countless craft breweries resort to contract brewing.

For example, Brooklyn Brewery outsources many of its core beers to upstate New York, and San Francisco’s 21st Amendment brews and cans its ales in Minnesota. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with contract brewing. It’s a way for breweries, both new and established, to meet consumer demand. Done properly with oversight and careful attention to recipe formulation, you’d never tell them difference between contract-brewed beer and ales crafted on a brewery’s personal system. However, is it still local beer if it’s brewed hundreds of miles, if not a half dozen states away? (Not to mention that the grains and hops were probably flown in from Germany and New Zealand and who knows where else, but that’s a different debate altogether.)

There’s a stigma surrounding contract brewing due to the us-versus-them divide between craft brewers and big boys such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, or whatever these international conglomerates now call themselves. Craft brewing is portrayed as more homespun, with recognizable faces behind the brew kettle. Mega-brewing evokes images of glazed-eye automatons pushing buttons on massive, gleaming machines. When you eliminate craft brewing’s folksy, hands-on image, consumers get angry—even if the beer still tastes terrific.

And for the record, just because a beer is locally brewed does not ensure it will be delicious. Some really nice people—people who lovingly craft their beers one barrel at a time—have poured some of the worst ales we’ve ever sipped.

BEER GEEKS SPEND ALL THEIR TIME HUNTING WHITE WHALES—INSTEAD OF DRINKING BEER IN THEIR BACKYARDS. 

One key to the third wave of the craft-beer revolution is the Internet. With the web, beer lovers from coast to coast—and around the globe—have a direct information pipeline to the latest brews to hit shelves and tap lines. From new nanobreweries to Sam Adams, no tidbit is deemed too small for the thirsty hordes on Twitter and Facebook. Disproportionately, though, the breathless coverage centers on white whales: the rare brews that crown rating websites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. Did you hear that Three Floyds is releasing a barrel-aged Dark Lord vertical? When will that one-off Cantillon come to America? Man, Hill Farmstead is only debuting its latest spontaneously fermented ale at the brewery!

For many drinkers, the endless hype conditions a drooling, Pavlovian response: I must have this beer, no matter what it costs. In much of the same way that 1990s indie rockers collected seven-inch records or kids once acquired baseball cards, beer geeks will stop at nothing to nab the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, the Bruery’s Black Tuesday, or maybe Hair of the Dog’s Dave. Obtaining these cultish brews becomes a badge of honor, a checkmark on a list that, to be honest, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. There are nearly 2,500 breweries in the country, many of which are making marvelous beer. The endless hunt for limited-release obscurities defeats the purpose of drinking: to share a pint and, more importantly, conversation with friends, both new and old. Stop mimicking Captain Ahab and his white-whale hunt. There’s plenty of great beer found in your backyard. You just have to log offline to find it.

CRAFT BREWERIES ARE STARTING TO USE COMPETITIVE BIG BEER TACTICS.

While craft brewers will never have the immense marketing budgets of Bud, Miller, and Coors, it’s clear that some of the larger ones have started to take pages from their playbook. Accusations of “pay-for-play”—essentially, a payout in cash or trade for a brewery to get their beer is on tap at a bar, or placed prominently in a package store—have surfaced in the craft beer industry (Stone’s Greg Koch called out fellow brewers earlier this month). At a talk this month, a Chicago distributor acknowledged that pay-to-play is alive and well in that city, and will be until craft beer achieves a big enough market share to compete on an equal playing field with big beer. Other evidence of craft-beer taking cues from the Bigs includes the rash of disputes over similarly named beers.

Let’s be honest: Passion doesn’t pay the bills, and a more competitive landscape isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it would be naive to think that craft brewers don’t need to push their products and protect their trademarks as much as any other small business owner. But it’s a slippery slope from competitive to cut-throat. Part of the appeal of the craft-beer industry since its inception has been the grassroots, a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats mentality that truly makes it feel like a community. But with tens of thousands of American craft beers in the market, could the era of Collaboration, Not Litigation be over?

THE BREWERS ASSOCIATION DEFINITION OF “CRAFT BEER” IS ARBITRARY AND INACCURATE. 

The Brewers Association got into a row with Big Beer last December when they released a list of “crafty” breweries—American breweries that mislead consumers into thinking that they are “craft” without satisfying the BA’s definition. But while we’d agree that Blue Moon is not a craft beer, the fact remains that BA’s definition is flawed in that it has less to do with how beer is brewed and more to do with where the organization decided to draw their line in the sand—i.e., a “craft brewery” must produce less than six million barrels a year and be independently-owned. Does volume matter that much? In its true sense, the word craft has nothing to do with size or ownership; it’s about process. Sure, by their definition, Shock Top isn’t craft, but neither is Kona, Magic Hat, or Widmer. There may be a time when we can refer to everything as “beer” without a modifier, but why exclude those breweries that are opening people’s minds to quality beer for the first time?

fests

MOST BEER FESTIVALS ARE MERELY AN EXCUSE TO GET DRUNK. 

We love beer festivals as much as the next red-blooded, beer-swilling American. They’re a great way to spend the afternoon with friends, sampling unusual ales and lagers and educating our palates on a constellation of craft beer flavors—or at least that’s supposed to be the point. In reality, beer festivals are an overpriced, all-you-can-drink buffet for getting blotto.

Much of the blame can be placed on ticket cost. With prices topping $70, $80, or $100 for a four-hour session, attendees want to ensure that they consume their admission fee in liquid form. And the liquids they are drinking are, by and large, nothing special. At most fests, distributors roll out breweries’ flagship brands. That means plenty of Stone IPA, Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, Brooklyn Brewery Lager, and other delicious, if commonplace, beers served by volunteers who don’t know two bits about the brands.

Of course, there are exceptions. Shelton Brothers and 12 Percent Imports put on the exemplary Festival, which offers some of the world’s rarest beers served by the brewers themselves. Or Beer Advocate’s incredibly well-curated Extreme Beer Fest and the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest. Yes, these tickets are pricey, but we’d happily pay a premium for quality beer—and not just endless access to brews found in the supermarket cooler.

BEER RATING SITES CREATE A DANGEROUS HERD MENTALITY.

Yes, we all use Beer Advocate and RateBeer constantly to get the specs on beers, find out what styles different breweries are making, discover good bars in totally obscure locales, and so much more. And yes, we all respect the pivotal role that the Alström Brothers have played in fostering a nationwide community of likeminded beer lovers united by their passion for hops and malts.

But has that likeminded part gotten out of control? These sites have spawned a legions of militant beer geeks who all talk the same, all lionize the same beers, and all obsess over high ABVs and extreme hops. Let’s be honest: The user-generated scores and commentary below each beer on Beer Advocate are nothing more than nerdier, more niche Yelp reviews. They can certainly be helpful when you’re trying to get a sense of what a beer might taste like and whether it’s worth your effort to seek out, but the herd mentality can be dangerous.

Look at the top-rated beers on the site: Of the first 20 on the list, 13 weigh in at 10% ABV or over. And last year on RateBeer, Hill Farmstead had eight of the top 10 new beers of the year. We agree that the brews Shaun Hill is making up in Vermont are stellar (Abner is on our list of list of IPAs to try before you die), but there’s a clear hype factor at play when opinion becomes so homogenous.

We’ve seen what the tyranny of wine rating scores did in that world. Sure, these beer ratings are democratic in their current formulation, but they are also creating drones who prattle on about lacing and ethanols and treat you like a moron if you don’t say that Pliny the Elder is a work of staggering genius. Here’s hoping for more free-thinking among beer drinkers—stepping away from the laptop and into a barroom is a good place to start.

CRAFT BREWERS ARE COPYCATS.

The last three decades has seen craft brewers travel to the distant fringes of fermentation, dosing IPAs with double, or even triple, the standard amount of hops; inoculating ales with funky wild yeasts; aging stouts in bourbon barrels; and reviving forgotten styles such as Germany’s tangy Berliner Weisse. Risk-taking is the heart of modern craft brewing. Without experimentation, we’d be stuck with too many lagers that, according to the old saw, are like having sex in a canoe: fucking close to water.

And while brewers have not lost their flair for the odd and the new (yup, that’s really algae, bull testicles, and a smoked pig head in those beers), too many are merely copying successful innovations. When Belgian-style saisons and black IPAs (or Cascadian dark ales, if provincialism floats your boat) started cropping up, they seemed thrillingly novel. Now, they’re as commonplace as Coors. Heck, imperial IPAs are a dime a dozen, and barrel-aging stouts has become a cliché. In every industry, success breeds imitations. It’s just all the more apparent in craft brewing, where draft lines are clogged with copycats following the status quo.

On that note: Don’t act surprised when you see session IPAs on every tap list this spring and summer.

styles

BEER STYLE CATEGORIES—PARTICULARLY IPA—MEAN ALMOST NOTHING IN TODAY’S CRAFT BEER MARKET.

When you order a Pinot Noir or a Chablis, you have a vague sense of what you’re in for, even if you’re not familiar with the producer or the vintage. But these days, going to a beer bar and ordering an IPA is a complete crap shoot. It’s not only that there are more hops varietals than ever, not to mention spinoff categories like rye IPAs and black IPAs (is it a porter with more hops?) and white IPAs (is it a wheat beer with more hops?), but also that process and ingredients themselves can be so vastly different that it’s anyone’s guess what the beer will taste like. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) hasguidelines, and it gives out style-based awards based on those guidelines, but they’ve been pushed and prodded and stretched to the degree that they are often too distorted to be useful.

On the one hand, this phenomenon can be seen in a positive light, as it provides further evidence of the runaway creativity of American craft brewers. Beer-style classifications are a relatively new phenomenon in the first place, popularized by beer writer Michael Jackson’s seminal The World Guide to Beer in 1977, and it appears that nomenclature has failed to keep pace with the experimental exuberance of today’s beer makers. Where it becomes a problem, however, is when it corrodes the foundation upon which beers are built and exposes brewers who feel liberated to go completely rogue before they’ve truly grasped the fundamentals of the styles that they are meant to be riffing upon. As the old saying goes, rules are made to be broken—but you need to know the rules first.

Why does this matter? We’ll leave that question to a man far more eloquent than us—Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, who had this to say toTime Out NY when he published the Oxford Companion to Beer:

 I wrote a piece in the book about beer styles in which I basically try to [compare] an India Pale Ale with a hollandaise sauce. Two hundred years from the time of [the creation of] hollandaise sauce, somebody can say to a [cook] in the kitchen, “I need to make some hollandaise sauce,” and they know what to do. There may be some tiny differences, but it is a word that has actual meaning [because it’s been ingrained in a shared language]. That’s what makes the French way of doing things in the kitchen so amazingly powerful—the words always mean the same thing. What we’re doing here is laying that foundation [for beer]. People will call you a beer Nazi [when you set up strict parameters for beer styles]. But I don’t think a nomenclature is something that shuts you down or ruins your creativity.

THE NEW YORK TIMES NEEDS TO HIRE A BEER CRITIC…LIKE FIVE YEARS AGO.

Despite our quibbles with it from time to time, we’ve got love for the Grey Lady and appreciate that it puts out some great booze coverage. For wine, there’s the estimable Eric Asimov, weighing in on up-and-coming regions and must-try vintages. For cocktails, the ever in-the-know Robert Simonson, delivering timely news on intriguing spirits and game-changing bartenders. And for beer…pretty much Eric Asimov again, who once in a while will hold a seemingly random themed beer tasting with Flo Fab and some NYC beer pros, like “porters for spring.”

Don’t get us wrong—that’s not a knock on Asimov, who clearly has a tremendous palate. Shouts to him for even caring about craft beer. But it’s clear that saisons will never get him as fired up as Sancerre, so let’s get someone else in the hot seat. Craft beer has arrived. It is no longer a novelty. Time for the Times to saddle up and give it the respect it deserves in print, rather than writing painfully anachronistic stories about, say, how large-format beer bottles are trending.

But let’s not pick on the Times. The problem of beer coverage flailing embarrassingly behind the industry (and the consumer, for that matter) is pervasive across most media. The Wall Street Journal has a bonafide beer critic in William Bostwick, and it does some genuine front-line reporting from time to time. But it’s a shame that as craft beer evolves into new terrain, so much of the coverage that reaches people is still stuck in the “hey, look at these crazy brewers making these crazy beers!” mold. Beer coverage is all but nonexistent on major food blogs like Eater and Grubstreet, and stories in national rags likeEsquire (which employs perhaps the world’s finest spirits writer in David Wondrich) and GQ is too often tepid and noncritical.

We’ve heard several brewers complain, off the record, about the ham-fisted coverage they receive. As media, we need to catch up to the industry and tell better stories about beer.

BY AND LARGE, BREWERS ARE ALL WHITE. 

There’s no doubt that beer is a democratizing beverage. Go to a corner bar, plunk down $5 or $6, and you can receive a world-class beer. Spend the same for wine or a cocktail and you’ll receive bottom-shelf plonk that’ll strip away your sobriety and stomach lining with equal speed. The price point allows a vast cross-section of polite (and impolite) society to embrace the bitter pleasures of craft beer, from sweatpants-wearing college students to Fortune500 CEOs. Beer’s keg-standing, tailgating, bro-down stereotype is disappearing as quickly as a fresh keg of Russian River’s Pliny the Younger.

While certain stereotypes are being destroyed, others are increasingly perpetuated: namely, brewers are mainly white. Sure, brewers boast beards of every conceivable style (lumberjack, dandy, goateed biker, etc.), and women are increasingly commandeering brew kettle, but that does not create diversity. Outside of Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, there’s a glaring lack of racial integration in the upper echelon of craft brewing. (And Barack Obama making a White House beer does not count.) Today, there are beers of every conceivable flavor and color. It’s a shame that brewers are such a uniform hue.

CRAFT BEER DRINKERS ARE LUSHES.

Common sense dictates that if you want to get lit fast, you take a shot or drink a cocktail. But with high-alcohol beers more popular than ever with the beer-drinking public, it’s not clear that all drinkers understand that a single 15%-ABV imperial stout or two pints of a 7% IPA are equivalent to four bottles of Bud Light. Loyalists preach that craft beer drinkers “respect beer” and drink responsibly, but it’s hard to maintain composure when so many high-octane beers are being served. An even scarier thought: Are these same drinkers getting behind the wheel—sometimes unknowingly—when they shouldn’t? The “Big Three” spend a portion of their big marketing budgets preaching responsible drinking. Just because their consumers don’t have joe-schmoe tastes doesn’t absolve craft brewers from encouraging the same.

THE GREAT AMERICAN BEER FESTIVAL IS NO LONGER AMERICAN—IT’S WESTERN. 

The Great American Beer Festival used to be a celebration of the nation’s best craft beer, period. While the West Coast has brewed much of that beer for a generation, these days excellent lagers and ales are coming from both coasts, and all points in between. The problem is, talented East Coast breweries have chosen to stay home from the Denver-based festival. After all, a majority of the festival’s 50,000 attendees come from Colorado and West. If a brewery has no intention of distributing beer out West, why spend thousands of dollars to send kegs, equipment, and manpower to Denver? Sure, the medals are nice to brag about, but they probably won’t do much to help a brewer keep pace with his or her real competition across town.

THE AMERICAN CRAFT-BREW COMMUNITY IS TOO ARROGANT ABOUT ITS PLACE IN THE WORLD BEER SCENE.

It’s impossible to miss the enormous international influence of the American craft brewers. Go to bars around the world, and you’ll find telltale signs that the gospel of hop bombs and barrel-aged stouts has spread. The excitement and creativity that these brewers have brought to beer is a great thing: It’s encouraging Brits to shake up the homogeneity of pub tap lines; it’s helping to inspire new generations of brewers in places where beer has a fusty, old-fashioned image; and it’s trailblazing a path for countries without a storied brewing history, like Denmark and Italy, to jump into the fray. Truly, it’s amazing what our craft brewers have achieved in the past few decades alone.

But you know what else is amazing? That Germany’s Weihenstephan has been making beer for nearly 1,000 years. Or that Belgian brewers figured out how to tame wild yeasts and use them to create funky sours without any labs or newfangled equipment, and the English created the first IPAs more than 300 years ago. Americans have a bad habit of ignoring history, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the beer world, where drinkers sneer at English ales for being “weak” and “boring,” or claim to have “invented” the black IPA without really appreciating its predecessors. It’s no wonder that some Europeans bristle at our beer culture, even if they might otherwise enjoy the beers that emerge from it.

Ultimately, the American craft-beer movement needs a slight attitude adjustment. Let’s be humble ambassadors of good beer, not hops-slinging cowboys with no appreciation for the traditions that made it all possible.

THE FEAR OF DECLINING BEER QUALITY IS STILL CLEAR AND PRESENT.

A common refrain from longtime brewers is that they “weathered the storm of the 1990s.” There were many factors that caused the craft beer bubble to burst then, but one of them was a decline in overall craft beer quality due to a an influx of new, inexperienced brewers who were in it for the money, not the love of beer. As the industry continues to grow, these fears have not faded—indeed, those same established brewers weren’t surprised when the main focus of New Belgium founder Kim Jordan’s speech at last month’s Craft Brewers Conference was the need to maintain beer quality. With a growing number of ambitious homebrewers at the helm of small upstarts, will quality decline? Perhaps, but there are far more people today that have been honing their homebrewing skills for a decade or more than there were back in the ’90s. Of course, the more the market grows, the higher the risk of charlatans getting into the game looking to market a gimmick rather than make great beer.

A LOT OF BREWERS MAKE WAY TOO MANY DIFFERENT BEERS.

Experimentation is at the heart of the craft-beer movement, and it’s the catalyst for all the delicious oddities we enjoy, like wine-beer hybrids from Dogfish Head, saisons dosed with foraged flowers, and brews laced with peanut butter. But there’s a difference between focused boundary-pushing and lack of discipline. As more and more zealous homebrewers go pro, they bring with them a tendency to let their imaginations run wild. It’s not uncommon to see a new upstart hit the market with an Imperial IPA, a saison, a black IPA, a spiced wheat beer, a gose, and a handful of other styles. Can they really all be expected to taste good?

Not to play favorites (okay fine, let’s play favorites), but a brewery like Barrier manages to pull this trick off pretty impressively, barely ever brewing the same recipe twice yet almost always delivering something balanced and tasty. But the vast majority of breweries could stand to narrow their efforts a bit. There’s a reason why beers like Anchor Steam, Orval, and London Pride are so great—the brewers have not spread themselves too thin, instead focusing on perfecting one style or a handful of styles. So, rather than filling taps with their addled experiments, more brewers should think about quality control and creating a legacy. Of course, the fickleness of craft-beer drinkers doesn’t help matters—even when you make a brew as excellent as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, people will follow move on in search of the next big thing. Still, with so much competition, we’d argue that crafting a small set of A+ products trumps flooding the market with B-minuses.

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein (@JoshMBernstein), Chris O’Leary (@brew_york), and Chris Schonberger (@cschonberger)

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2 Comments

  1. This is one of the best opinion pieces I’ve read on the current state of the craft beer world in the US. You’ve managed to capture a lot of the stuff that’s been rolling around in my head for a while. Well done!

    Reply
  1. Close to home? | drink less drink better

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