Saturday, January 23, 2016

NO DOGS ALLOWED: Cranky jackass food critic ruins a good thing at St. Louis brewery

The craft beer world is a dog-friendly world. It just is. Anyone who has toured more than a few breweries will have encountered some friendly rovers hanging out with the public. Sometimes they're with guests. Other times they're with the brewery.

Most recently, I visited Stoneface Brewing in New Hampshire (try their porter, it's excellent), and they had two lazy ol' dogs just chillin' out. Pet them, ignore them, whatever works for you. They won't approach you; you have to go to them. The point is, they are part of the brewery.

This is pretty typical.

And most people like it that way, because in many ways the craft world is a huge, nation-spanning clubhouse of like-minded people.

Except for the St. Louis Post Dispatch's Daniel Neman, I suppose, whose recent rant about a dog at a brewpub -- not to mention a dozen phone calls he made to the local health department -- caused the brewery to withdraw its open door policy for dogs.

(Seriously, dude, a dozen calls, plus multiple calls to the brewery itself? Get a life.)

The owners at the place, Urban Chestnut Brewing Co., had no choice, of course, because they were technically in violation of local ordinances, despite it being well known and clearly advertised that it was a dog-friendly establishment.

But it's a shame they were forced into it by a smug old crank who clearly has no idea what the craft beer experience is all about.

The brewery is taking it fine. In a letter by co-founder David M Wolfe:
Personally, as a dog owner, it’s been a lot of fun watching fellow dog-lovers accompanying their ‘best friends’ over beers & food at Urban Chestnut, and I’m disappointed that we have to make this change. However, it is always our intention and practice to abide by the law, and thus I hope those of you who have brought your dog(s) by in the past will understand this decision.
Naturally, Neman doesn't take responsibility for being the stick-up-the-ass that he is, instead claiming that he was doing it for The People:
I am not the sort of person who gets freaked out by such things. I have been to bars where there have been worse things on the floor. But most of my fellow revelers at the birthday party — and probably most of my fellow humans — get a little queasy at the thought.
Right. Sure thing, dude. How very selfless of you. Thanks for falling on your sword for our benefit.

I'm not even a dog guy. Don't have one. Don't plan to. I'm fine without one. But I'll be the first to tell you that the dog-friendly nature of the craft world is a nice example of the scene's casual, bro-less, "we're all in a collective backyard together enjoying this common interest" nature. It's different than the corporate beer and dining scene, and we like it that way.

So basically, screw Daniel Neman.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"If you can't beat them, buy them," craft brewery acquisitions, and ranting against a pet peeve

The super mega global guys over at ABInBev, owners of Budweiser and a jillion other huge, bland beer brands, have bought another craft brewery. This time, it's the folks at Breckenridge Brewery.

This is the latest in a series of acquisitions and partnerships by the major breweries, who are scooping up or getting partial ownership of craft breweries like Ballast Point, Lagunitas, and most notoriously, Goose Island (which has actually proved to be excellent for the brand despite legions clamoring for a boycott). It seems two weeks can't go by without hearing that another craft brewery has been acquired by one of the big boys.

Unsurprisingly, this news did not sit well with people in the craft community. As happens with any one of these acquisitions, message boards and discussion forums were on fire. Breckenridge has never really been seen as one of the elite craft breweries—they're solid, but you're not going to trade away your soul for one—but the response when InBev buys another brewery is never positive. It's often seen as something just short of the end of the world. Such was the case with this news.

As expected, one of the most common refrains when the news came out was, "If you can't beat them, buy them."

And that makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

I've been drinking craft for so long (since the mid 1990s), and so many of the people around do the same (almost everyone in my circle of friends), it would be easy to assume that everyone has long since converted to craft beer and that the big brewers are running scared. The wider craft beer community certainly seems to think so.

But despite the perception we get in our insular little world, nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact of the matter is, despite craft beer's EXPLOSIVE growth in recent years, they are still a pimple on the ass of the big brewers. An annoying pimple the big brewers would like to pop, perhaps, but a pimple nonetheless.

Sorry, cheerleaders. I've been shouted down before for pointing this out, but the numbers don't lie. The fact that you and your friends all drink good beer doesn't mean jack. Craft beer isn't beating the big boys. It actually isn't even close. As a brand, Bud remains dominant to the point of absurdity. Bud Light alone sells SIX TIMES as much as every single craft beer combined.

Read that again. You can take every single craft beer brewed by every single craft brewer in America, put them all together, and you'd still only amount to 1/6 of what Bud Light alone sells. Throw in the core Budweiser and the two sell eight times as much as all the craft beer in America combined.

Total Domestic Beer Sales, courtesy of The Atlantic. For context, all of craft combined sold 55 million cases.

And that doesn't even begin to touch Busch Light, Coors Light, Coors, Miller, Miller Lite, and so on.

So yeah, the whole idea of "if you can't beat them, buy them" is ridiculous. Craft beer is getting beaten. Trounced, actually. The only "craft" beer to even sniff at those levels is Yuengling, and they do it by producing a beer that is just a macro lager dressed up in craft scene-acceptable packaging.

Yes yes yes, craft is growing super fast while the big boys are stagnant, and that is not an insignificant fact nor is it one lost on the big brewers, but the big guys have such a gigantic lead that it would take decades to even up the score.

Don't expect to see it happen any time soon. Also keep in mind that the mega enthusiasm of those new to craft beer is often overwhelmingly huge, but that enthusiasm often fades with time; people grow older, they fall into old standbys or spend their money differently, and before they realize what has happened they go from trying a few hundred different beers a year to a handful.

Craft beer is a concern to the big brewers, yes, but we in the craft community often overstate the case to a tremendous degree. The big brewers are not running scared from that excellent little craft brewery you like.

You know what the real threat to the big brewers is? It's not craft breweries, it's spirits and wine.

Americans are actually drinking less beer than they used to—around 8 million barrels less than in 2008, according to Gatza. Meanwhile, wine consumption has grown steadily since the early 1990s and spirits are making huge strides in the booze industry (especially flavored spirits).

In fact, story after story after story after story after story after story after story and even studies conducted for the craft beer industry show that beer has been losing ground to wine and spirits for some time now.

Experts in the industry say “Never before has the battle for share of glass been so intense.”
Makes us look juvenile and obnoxious
Craft beer is growing, but beer overall is not—and that's bad for the entire beer industry, not just for the big boys.

The fact is, the growth of craft beer is good for the big brewers, or is at least neutral, because it means people are at least still drinking beer. People moving away from beer to spirits and wine means the entire beer market shrinks, which in turn means beer makers have to convince people to come back to beer if they want their business. That's bad.

If people just switch from one beer brand to another, however, that's better. Then at least you're fighting for an audience that already drinks beer. That means they still have a chance at capturing their dollars in one way or another. The big brewers would rather have people in front of a row of tap handles, no matter what those tap handles are, than in front of a row of wine bottles.

If people switch to wine or spirits, on the other hand, that's a customer they can no longer reach as easily. (This is exactly why you see so many of those beer cocktails on the market. You may wonder who buys them, but the fact is they sell like CRAZY. Folks like Bud want to at least keep people attached to their brand as they migrate away from beer.)

So yeah, of course the big brewers would like to see growth instead of being stagnant—that goes without saying for any business—but buying up craft breweries has only a small amount to do with that. Breweries like Breckenridge produce as much beer in a year as Budweiser spills in a day. These acquisitions aren't offering big gains to their bottom line. They're not turning around the company's fortunes. They would literally have to buy 100 Breckenridges for Breckenridge to slide into the top 10 beer brands despite Breckenridge being one of the top 50 craft brewers in America.

(Insanely, it would take over 1,000 of these breweries to match Bud Light. There are not 1,000 breweries of this size in America. There aren't even 60 of them.)

Rather, these acquisitions are about diversifying in a market that increasingly demands diversity. It's about having something to offer bars and restaurants other than Bud and Bud Light. It's about becoming a little more flexible in the face of a market that demands it. It's about not being tied to just one thing. And it's about planting some seeds for the future.

Buying an interest in these craft breweries doesn't mean they're being beaten in the marketplace. They're not. The numbers are beyond dispute. Despite all our hardcore proselyting for craft beer—I've been annoying my friends with that shit for 20 years now—the big brewers like Bud still dominate the market to a crushing extent.

So yeah, no. "If you can't beat then, buy them" is a stupid phrase that completely ignores the actual landscape of beer in America in lieu of the one we in our insular little craft world like to image, and it drives me up a wall.

Though perhaps it's not nearly as stupid as wasting this much time on an insignificant pet peeve.

Please shoot me.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

5 Beers that Should be on your Holiday Dinner Table

Dad?
'Tis the season to stuff your face with lots and lots of food and feel guilty about it the next day, but then stuff your face some more because man, there are gatherings and get togethers and parties to attend, so you eat some more, and then some more, and when will this cycle of eat and guilt, eat and guilt end?

And hey, you can't stuff your face without some beer. Well, you can, but why would you want to?

Yeah. So to accompany this wonderful time of year, here are five beers to consider adding to your holiday dinner table. I'd say that my criteria included the ability to pair with well with food, availability, and so on, but mostly my criteria was "this is a column that didn't get used in the magazine I write for, so let's get some use out of it on my blog."

You know, for the cynical among us keeping score.

Dogfish Head Fort

A table full of food calls for a beer ideal for pairing with all that food, especially fare like turkey, stuffing, greens, and cranberry. Dogfish Head’s Fort fits the bill. Boasting as much in common with wine as it does with beer, this insanely huge fruit beer demands a cautious approach but rewards a well-chosen pairing. Coming in at 18 percent ABV – yes, you read that right – Fort greets your nose with an almost wine-like fruitiness. Your first sip will reveal intense fruit, hints of Belgian funk, and then a wash of alcohol heat. It’s a fantastic way to accent a hearty salad, fine cheeses, and cheesecake (though honestly, who the hell actually likes cheesecake?).

Firestone Walker XIX

The 14th anniversary edition
Some beers are like a holiday in a bottle, a once-a-year break from the norm that makes all the others around it pale by comparison. For nine years, Firestone Walker’s anniversary blends have been one of those holidays in a bottle. Anniversary beers are nothing new, but few do them like Firestone. This year, a group of California’s most talented wine blenders gathered at the brewery to help develop XIX (19). Made up by blending Parabola (bourbon barrel stout), Stickee Monkee (barrel-aged quad), Bravo (barrel-aged imperial brown), and Velvet Merkin (barrel-aged oatmeal stout), this highly complex brew boasts up front vanilla, bourbon, and oak. This is the beer you have with a cigar during a break in your holiday meal, or that you open to impress your stodgy old uncle.

Solemn Oath / The Bruery Conquest

The Bruery is well-known thanks to creative concoctions like Autumn Maple and Tart of Darkness. The Chicago area’s Solemn Oath is less well known, largely because they are not yet distributed outside their immediate area, but beers like Conquest are a sure sign you’ll know their name soon enough. This collaboration beer is a Belgian-style golden ale made with cocoa nibs, coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon. In other words, perfect to enjoy alongside some pie at the end of your long, family-filled holiday day. Bright carbonation, zesty spices and grainy malts dominate, with the additional flavors there to accent the whole rather than to take over. The result is eminently drinkable; it’s subtle enough to enjoy over conversation but features layers enough for finicky drinkers to unpeel. (My great thanks to my friend Cary for helping me get my hands on this beer.) 

Victory Vital IPA

Not all beers in your holiday lineup need be potent, complex monsters. In fact, it’s best that they are not. You’ll need something to start your day, and it’s hard to go wrong with a vibrant, aromatic IPA. Vital IPA is the latest in Victory’s growing lineup of hoppy beers (check out Dirtwolf and the Moving Parts series . This highly fragrant pale ale will wake you up with its aromas of spice, grapefruit, and hints of pine. The crisp, almost pilsner-like malts help it drink clean, with a nice wash of bitterness in the finish to clear the palate. ‘Tis the season for big, dark beer overload, making an IPA like this one a nice change of pace.

Deschutes the Abyss

The Abyss, 2010
At one time, those of us living on the East Coast considered the Abyss something of a white whale, a big, elusive brew we had to chase halfway across the world for a sip. Good beers have a way of making their way east, though, which means you can finally tip your glass and give thanks with this once hard-to-find beer. Made with molasses, licorice, and vanilla bean, with a portion aged in a variety of wine and spirits barrels, this is the sort of complex, knock-you-out brew you enjoy as a nightcap split between a few friends. With luscious dark chocolate, sweet licorice, pleasant bourbon heat, and absurd smoothness for a beer that clocks in at 11 percent ABV, it’s widely praised as one of the best stouts on the market for a reason.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

NJ's Carton Brewing is about to get bigger

New Jersey isn't exactly known for its thriving craft beer scene, at least not when compared to its neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York.

That's not to say it doesn't have some fantastic breweries. It sure does. Flying Fish doesn't get much love from the newest crop of beers geeks, but I contend that Wild Rice Double IPA is one of the great hidden gems of craft beer, while their Exit Series has churned out an array of quirky, interesting brews. Located at the Jersey Shore, Kane has one of the best IPA's in the region, and specialty brews like their Morning Bell coffee porter are top shelf by any measure. Plus there is the great stuff from Cape May brewing, among others.

But no NJ brewery has gotten more attention than Carton Brewing.

Boat on a boat? It seemed appropriate.
Based out of the Atlantic Highlands and founded by Augie Carton, a guy with a culinary background rather than a beer background, they've become by far the most in-demand brewers from the Garden State. Their Boat Beer is arguably the best session ale on the market, while experimental beers like Carton Regular Coffee are nothing short of mind-blowing.

(Seriously, people, this tastes like a sweet Dunkin' coffee, but it's 12% ABV ... and you won't taste a bit of the alcohol. Wow.)

No wonder stores can't keep the stuff on shelves. No wonder people in other states will trade you some outstanding shit to get their hands on Carton. No wonder people are actually paying attention to beer in New Jersey.

Because Carton is damn good at what they do.

It's great news, then, that Carton will be expanding their operations.

The brewery is going to be moving into a 10,000-square-foot building, which doubles the size of their existing facility, and will be bumping up their production from about 4,000 barrels per year to about 5,000 after their expansion. Now, 5,000 barrels a year isn't a lot, but when people are knocking over pregnant nuns to get a taste of your wacky IPAs, every little bit counts. So yeah, beer lovers in the vaguely-defined tri-state area, hoist your glasses and celebrate.

The idea, Auguie told the Newark Star-Ledger, is to allow them to keep experimenting.

"As much a we love that people enjoy our Boat Beer and 077XX, we also love making other beer and trying out new flavors," Carton said. "So in the short term, (the expansion) will help us do more of that while also keeping up with the growing demand for distribution of the beers that people already enjoy."

This is all happening in part thanks to a $1.25 million line of credit extended to them via the New Jersey Economic Development Authority's Premier Lender program, which makes it easier for small businesses to get loans.

The new facility will be located right next door to the existing brewery.

There is a downside to this, though. Carton currently has distro to about 390 stores, give or take. It's a rather small number, really, when you think about it.

And in order to better meet demand, the plan is to cut that number.

Yikes.

It makes sense, though. Beer shops in and around New Jersey are routinely hammered with "did you get Latest Carton Beer in?" Even standbys like Boat and 077XX (their flagship IPA) tend to sell out within a day. The only way to make sure that every shop that wants to carry Carton CAN carry Carton is to cut back on distribution. That kind of sucks, I guess.

But if in the long run it means more Carton for everyone, that's fantastic news, because I suspect this is a brewery that's going to be around for a long, long time.

Cheers!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

NJ brewery Rinn Duin looking for a Head Brewer

The folks at Rinn Duin. Photo by
Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger
If you're a brewer or aspiring brewer, and you live in New Jersey or are willing to locate there -- really, it's not as bad as people say! -- a small brewery in central New Jersey might want to hear from you.

Rinn Duin Brewing is a small, 25-barrel brewery out of Toms River that specializes in traditional UK styles of beer. English milds, Scotch ales, browns, that sort of thing.
They're pretty new, having gotten their start less than two years ago, and are located in an area with a growing craft beer scene. (Carton and Kane, both highly praised NJ breweries, are both within an hour of this place.) Despite being new, they have a great looking facility.

Anyway, they're looking for a head brewer. Maybe you? Here are the details, as pulled from their posting at Probrewer.com:

Head Brewer for a UK style brewery
Rinn Duin Brewing is a 25 BBL brewery in Ocean County NJ that is looking for a head brewer. This is a working head brewer role encompassing all aspects of brewery operations.
Essential Functions and Responsibilities

• Cleaning and sanitation of all equipment in the brewery
• Brewing recipes to specifications, and ability to develop recipes.
• Yeast management and propagation
• Responsible for the entire brewing and quality control processes and should be well versed in scheduling, brewing, cellaring and packaging operations including a bottling line.
• Manage raw materials, inventory control, scheduling and hop contracts, coordinating with suppliers
• Sanitary sampling, yeast cell counts and record keeping of all beers produced
• Equipment maintenance and troubleshooting
• Review and maintain a top quality QA/QC program
• Process development and Standard Operating Procedures enhancement
• Strong verbal communication and organization skills.
• Monthly detailed inventory
• Mentoring to all employees on the brewing process and beer education
• Cutting controllable costs and maintaining a profitable brewery
• Use of proper and safe chemical handling techniques
• Safety Protocols and OSHA compliance
• Fill server shifts in the sample room as needed
• Ability to work flexible shifts
• Participation in events, festivals, promotions, etc. (this is a must).
• Forklift experienced/certified.

Requirements
• Minimum of three years brewery experience and hands-on working knowledge of a production brewery with a 20bbl brew house or larger, brewing education is a plus
• Must possess good mechanical aptitude and troubleshooting skills.
• Able to work with alkaline and acidic chemicals without allergic reactions.
Able to work in wet or humid conditions (non¬weather), wet floors, wet equipment and extreme heat
• Assure cleanliness in the brewery and follow brewery best practices
The full time position will offer competitive compensation, an allowance for health insurance and paid vacation. Compensation will be based on experience and qualifications. If interested, please send a resume, salary requirements, and a brief summary of proven skill sets
Responses by email only to chip@rinnduin.com