Tag Archives: macro

Local, Direct, and Packaging Neutral Beer

The “middle” of the craft beer market is dead.  Successful craft brewers caught between the mega corporations like AB InBev and the nimble locally focused brewers are either selling to the big boys (e.g. New Belgium Brewery) or downsizing (e.g. Boulder Beer).  Heck, even the big boys are getting out of the craft beer game after realizing that nationally distributed craft beers are not really attractive to a consumer with hyper local choices.  Yes, I am looking at you Constellation Brands.

Instead of forking over money to a faraway brewery that might actually just be a faraway mega corporation, make your beer consumption as local as possible.

Better yet, make your beer consumption a direct affair.  Buy your beer directly from the brewery.  Do not involve a distributor or a retailer.  Make every dollar go to the brewery.  It can make a difference.  The most successful new breweries—over the past five years or so—seem to be the ones who operate with a taproom as their primary source of revenue.  Why?  It cuts out the middle man and avoids the headaches of distribution.

Even when you buy local beer at the grocery store it potentially involves a number of middle men.  In some states it is possible for your local brewery to “self-distribute” but this is a hard road and really only works in a hyper local type of market.  Even in this instance there is the retail outlet’s need for some level of profit.

Going further, make your beer consumption a packaging neutral affair.

The old saw about recycling an aluminum can is that it saves approximately 95% of the energy compared to creating an aluminum can out of virgin ore.  This is usually equated to running a light bulb for an entire day or watching a television for a couple of hours.  Calculate a different way, recycling one pound of aluminum (approximately 33 cans or a “dirty thirty” of PBR) saves around 7 kWh of electricity.

However, even recycling that aluminum can uses energy and contributes to a global supply chain that uses a lot of energy.  The aluminum supply chain, unfortunately, does not have a 100% recovery rate as evidenced by the number of cans I pick up along my usual cycling route in a given week.  Removing any volume from this supply chain is an environmental win.

By utilizing a reusable package, in this case a glass growler or “meowler,” removes aluminum packaging from the waste/recovery stream.  I am sure that there is a calculation to figure out how many times I need to use a growler to compensate for its own production costs in terms of energy, but given that I have owned the same growler for almost five years I am going to consider those costs accounted for several times over.

The goal is to buy beer that is made locally, purchased directly from the brewery, and in packaging that is reusable.  Local, direct, and packaging neutral.  It’s the future.

Drinking Local in the Fourth Quarter of 2019

Here is how my fourth quarter 2019 beer consumption worked out:

Q4 Beer.png

You will notice two trends: heavy on the Big Grove Brewery and a tilt toward Colorado beers at the end of the year.

The emphasis on the Big Grove Brewery beers was due to holiday parties and wanting to be a crowd pleaser.  The three six packs ended up as mixed six packs—two of each kind—for a gift exchange.  Needless to say, my gifts ended up getting “stolen” the most.  Genius.

The Colorado tilt is all about location, location, location.  I spent Christmas break in Grand County, Colorado and these were the beers that were on tap or in the small liquor store by our condo.  I was said to not see any Outer Range Brewing on tap anywhere, but I managed.

It was a “no claws” kind of year as I managed to avoid the hysteria and mania of the summer of hard seltzer.  Seriously, does anyone actually enjoy those monstrosities?  The number of times someone has introduced a White Claw with the statement, “It doesn’t taste that bad” is staggering.  This is like people telling me that they chase a workout with a couple of Michelob Ultras.  What is the point of drinking a beer after working out if it does not actually taste like beer?

For 2020 I have some goals regarding beer buying and consumption that is going to up the ante from just being about “drinking local.”  Stay tuned.

The Death of “Middle Craft” Beer

American craft brewing legend Dogfish Head Brewery, the mad geniuses from Delaware, sold to Boston Beer, the parent company that brews Sam Adams Boston Lager among many other beers.  Neither brewery should be considered a micro-brewery, but neither is a macro-brewery.  They both exist in some kind of middle ground.  Being in that middle ground may mean death or consolidation going forward.

Apparently, the top 50 craft brewers are having trouble with many posting severe year-over-year declines.  These are the craft brewers that I would define as “middle craft.”  The challenge for these breweries is giving you the beer drinker a reason to try them over, say, a handful of hyper local breweries that may only sell products from their own taproom or a few commercial accounts.

In the past—okay, the 1990s—middle craft was the place to be as beer drinkers sought out different beers and the quality control at a lot of craft breweries was just bad.  I cannot tell you how many small breweries were making beer that would make most semi-skilled home brewers spit out their stout.  You sought out a New Belgium Fat Tire or Boulevard Wheat because those were well made beers from breweries you trusted.  You knew you were not going to waste $8 on a six pack.  Heck, you might even pick up something a little unusual from the same brewery when you were in the mood for a change.

That dynamic is long gone.  Award winning breweries are scattered across this nation.  Between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City I can patronize a half dozen breweries putting out good and sometimes great beer.  Those same breweries have won medals at prestigious beer festivals and have reputations well beyond the borders of the state.  Expanding my field of view to the entire state opens up a whole host of small, innovative, and well regarded breweries making all sorts of different beers.  If you do not believe me just spend a minute perusing the tap list at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines.

All things being equal, why would I buy a New Belgium Citradelic over a Lion Bridge Brewing Tag?  Or, why would I buy a Dale’s Pale Ale over a Big Grover Brewery Arms Race?  I like all four of the aforementioned beers.  I choose to buy the local products almost every time.

This is the reality for the beer business in 2019.

The Horror of the Open Bar

There is one last frontier remaining for the craft beers of the world…the wedding.   Imagine my horror this past weekend when I went to the open bar—featuring what some would call top-shelf liquor—for a beer only to discover that my options were limited to Budweiser, Bud Light, and Heineken.

Of note is that the couple getting married are craft beer drinkers and the groom even spent some time working in the tap room at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, so these are people who are known to drink an IPA or two.

The willingness of wedding caterers to offer craft beer is something that will have to overcome their fear of failure. They are operating under the principle of not failing versus succeeding wildly. People go to weddings and remember seeing a couple get married, visiting with family, watching some middle age men dance quite awkwardly, and waking up the next morning with a trip staring them in the face. Having a truly memorable culinary experience is pretty far down the list, so the caterer just tries not to be a failure.

It is a shame because these events represent a great opportunity to increase craft beer’s reach into the marketplace. One, people spend a lot of money on weddings. Two, the cost of failure for a consumer at a wedding is low so they are apt to try something new. Three, who wants to be limited to choices like Budweiser, Bud Light, and Heineken? Especially after you have spent the afternoon before the wedding enjoying a Burning River IPA.

The only place where I have seen craft beer crack the wedding bar is in Wisconsin where the wedding organizers feel it is a patriotic duty to have a keg of New Glarus’ Spotted Cow on tap for all of the out of town guests to enjoy.

Great Lakes Brewing Tasting Experience

No matter how many beers seem to be offered in my local liquor store there always seems to be a few breweries that do not distribute in the state of Iowa.  I will chalk it up to the state’s oddball liquor laws more than a reticence to sell to the Hawkeye state.  One such brewery is Great Lakes Brewing Company out of Cleveland, Ohio.  What gets me every time is how many breweries seem to distribute to states bordering Iowa, but not in the state itself.  In the case of Great Lakes Brewing it distributes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.  Granted, Minnesota represents the extent of its westward reach so maybe there is hope for the future.

In September of this year, Great Lakes Brewing will celebrate 25 years of beer brewing excellence.  When I found myself in Ohio to attend a funeral a quick side trip to a local liquor store left me with quite the haul of beer hailing from Cleveland.  The poor cashier looked at me sideways for a moment as she rang up a sampler pack, a six pack, and a four pack of various Great Lakes Brewing varieties.

What about the tasting experience?  Okay, the term “tasting experience” was lifted from the not-to-be-called-a-sampler-pack sampler pack.  I kind of liked it because it suggested that the four beers contained within represented a spectrum of what Great Lakes Brewing was offering.  The tasting experience would consist of Dortmunder Gold Lager, Eliot Ness Amber Lager, Burning River Pale Ale, and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

The beers listed above were ordered in terms of “heaviness” and at the suggestion of the package that is how I tasted them.  Starting with Dortmunder Gold Lager:

Dortmunder Gold

This was one of the beers that started things for Great Lakes Brewing and it is still a year-round beer for the brewery.  It’s of medium alcohol (5.8% ABV) and hops (30 IBU).  Like other lagers the beer “finishes” really clean and crisp.  The presence of Cascade hops is evident on the tongue as it leaves a lingering bitterness.  Not too much, mind you, but the flavors stay there for a second or two.

When you pour a glass of a beer like this it makes you kind of sad for the Millers and Budweisers of the world that try to pass of pale swill as a lager.  The style can bring so much more the table than tasteless, ice cold brain grenades.

Eliot Ness Amber Lager is next:

Eliot Ness

Amber lagers and ales almost feel like the American craft movements second style of beer after pale ales.  I know that the lines have been blurred between pales and ambers, but there is enough distinction to still consider them different styles.

I wanted to like Eliot Ness, but the alcohol (6.2% ABV) was too much for the bitterness (27 IBU).  It really detracted from the beer because it came across “boozy.”  Not Four Loko boozy, but just not enough balance to make the beer likeable.

Let’s move on to Burning River Pale Ale:

Burning River

Cause the Cuyahoga River

Goes smokin’ through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on

-“Burn On” by Randy Newman

Here’s what Eliot Ness could have been with a little more bitterness.  At a medium-high alcohol (6.0% ABV) and bitterness (45 IBU) the balance seems to have been struck fairly well.  The fact that the river is named for the epic fire that actually burned on the Cuyahoga River, which inspired the passage of the Clean Water Act, is icing on the cake.

The tasting experience winds down with Edmund Fitzgerald Porter:

Edmunds Fitzgerald

First, I hear Randy Newman.  Now, it’s Gordon Lightfoot.  What are you trying to do to me Great Lakes?

I have a problem with porters and stouts because I can never figure out which style is which.  Is it a porter or is it a stout?  I feel like there should be a combination name that just does away with the confusion because there seems to be no line of demarcation.

Edmund Fitzgerald is a roasted and smokey beer.  It’s almost got a coffee flavor that makes me thing of coffee infused beer, like Surly’s Coffee Bender.  However, there is no overt coffee flavoring added.  Interesting.

I liked Edmund Fitzgerald, but on a summer evening one glass was more than enough.  This is a cooler weather beer for sure.

In addition to the tasting experience I also picked up a six-pack of Commodore Perry India Pale Ale and Lake Erie Monster Imperial India Pale Ale.  Let’s start with the commodore:

Commodore Perry

This is fairly “big” beer.  It comes in at a high alcohol (7.0%) and bitterness (70 IBU), but it does not drink like either is overpowering.  I attribute this to the mix of hops.  Rather than blast away with a single hop, Commodore Perry uses three—Simcoe, Willamette, and Cascade.  All our fairly common in American craft IPAs, but the combination of the three means that no flavors or aromas get out of whack.  It’s pretty amazing to see a beer at 70 IBUs not be considered “extreme” anymore when this would have been considered a hop explosion only a few years ago.  The name of the game has changed.

Lake Erie Monster shows us why:

Lake Erie Monster

If Commodore Perry was a “big” beer than Lake Erie Monster is a “bigger” beer.  Clocking in at a high alcohol (9.1% ABV) and bitterness (80 IBU) this is not a beer you sit back planning to drink a half dozen.  Heck, that’s probably why it only comes in a four pack instead of six.

Imperial style beers, be it IPAs or otherwise, are usually heavier varieties of other beers and Lake Erie Monster qualifies as a heavy beer.  The downside to drinking one of these out of a twelve ounce bottle is that this style is best served like a cocktail in smaller portions.  I like how in craft brewery tasting rooms there is a trend toward offering heavy beers in 6 ounce or smaller increments.  Putting down 12 or even 16 ounces of a beer like this regularly would leave one raving in no time.

I highly suggest that if you are in Ohio that you try and sample what Great Lakes Brewery is offering.  It really speaks to the quality of the American craft beer movement that excellent beers like this can be distributed in limited areas and be successful.  It also makes for fun trips when you are able to get things in a location unavailable back at home.

Bitterly Cold Beer Thoughts

The mercury or whatever they use in thermometers these days was showing an ambient air temperature below zero for much of the morning here in eastern Iowa.  It’s the kind of cold that feels like someone has just pinched your spine when you walk outside or, rather, run between buildings in an effort to avoid exposure.

It’s on days like these that I wish I could stay home wrapped in blankets drinking a beer.  Instead, my thoughts wander to beer while I look at spreadsheets all day long at work.

Brickwarmer Holiday Red

It’s been about a week since I cracked open the first 22 ounce bottle of the Brickwarmer Holiday Red:

Brickwarmer Holiday Red

The beer turned out okay, but it really lacks some of the flavors in the description.  In particular, the description noted that it would have pronounced citrus flavors but none of that came through in the final product.

However, the beer does seem to hit a lot of the right notes for these cold days.  It is hearty in terms of malt profile and the hops do come through strong without turning into a gut punch.  Or a smack to the teeth depending upon your perception of hop bombs.

I think that next year I will try a recipe similar to this but add some fruit or spices to make a unique holiday ale.  A Christmas present for the beer drinker in my life…me!

Like my second batch of The Innkeeper [insert link] the carbonation of different bottles has been highly inconsistent.  Some bottles are carbonated perfectly while others are quite flat.  It is a problem that is pushing me closer and closer to going the keg route.  I just want to build a keezer.

My Rye Ale

This weekend I brewed up a batch of rye ale that started with the American Rye Ale extract kit offered by the good folks at Northern Brewer.  I have made this exact recipe before, so I wanted to do something a little different.

I felt that the beer really lacked a defining rye characteristic, something that my rye whiskey drinking friend agreed with wholeheartedly.  In an attempt to up the rye quotient without upsetting the balance of the beer I steeped one pound of Weyermann Chocolate Rye Malt for twenty minutes as a specialty grain to add some depth to the beer in general.  It will darken up the beer and add those roasted notes that can really make a beer shine.

When the weather turns warmer and, depending upon the success of this batch, I am eager to try substituting the dark chocolate malt for a lighter Weyermann Rye Malt or Fawcett Crystal Rye Malt.  The other change I am looking to try is moving away from the ubiquitous Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast or the slightly less ubiquitous Wyeast 1272 American Ale II.  This weekend I bottled a batch of American Amber Ale that used Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale.

The “problem” I am having right now is that I can spend hours on my iPad with iBrewMaster crafting new recipes to try come springtime.

What is Craft Beer?

There is a debate raging in the beer world over the term “craft” and what it means.  In December the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based member association comprised of self-identified craft brewers, released a statement entitled “Craft vs. Crafty: A Statement from the Brewers Association.”  While I will not qualify the resulting conversation as a firestorm, it has been a heated debate within the world of beer.

The “traditional” criteria of a craft brewer is one whose production is less than 6 million barrels a year and has an ownership structure where less than 25% is owned by a parent company who is not themselves a craft brewer.  Therefore, a brand like Shock Top would not qualify because it is wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

I feel that some of this argument is reminiscent of the whole debate surrounding organic when the federal government put into place standards that were used to define organic.  While there was general applause over there being standards by which to qualify organic, a lot of people felt that there was a departure away from the spirit of what it means to be organic.  In the debate over craft there is the same tenor.  Is being a craft brewer purely a numbers game, as the Brewers Association’s definition would suggest, or is it about approach?

I would argue that what defines “craft” is approach.  If a brewery is independent of a large parent, but brewing watered down schwag lager to be consumed via beer bongs no one is going to label that a craft brewer.  Sorry, whether it’s 10 million barrels or 2,000 barrels crap beer is crap beer not craft beer.  That is, in essence, the problem with simple thresholds.

BTW, why 6 million barrels as the threshold?  The Boston Beer Company, which brews Sam Adams, is the largest craft brewery in the United States.  In 2011, the company brewed 2.5 million barrels itself and another 13 thousand under contract according to its annual report.  If the largest craft brewer is not even halfway to that number why is it even considered a threshold?

Ironically, included among the list of members for the Brewers Association is AC Golden—a division of the gigantic Molson Coors Brewing Co and part of the Miller Coors Brewing Co joint venture, Goose Island Beer Co—owned by the megasized Anheuser-Busch InBev monstrosity, and others I am too lazy to track down the true ownership structure.  The Brewers Association is going to produce a list in the first quarter of 2013 of the breweries that meet the “traditional” criteria of a craft brewery and that remain independent of a larger parent company.

I am just going to stick to my homebrew.  It’s as craft as you can get.