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

'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.


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.


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

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.

• 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

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sam Adams takes on Heady Topper, Enjoy By IPA

When I talked to Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, two years ago, he made pretty clear that he didn't like standing still. He didn't want his company to stand still, either. Keep innovating, keep trying new things, or die. That was the idea.

In today's craft beer world, in which the best beers in the world are always the Hot New Thing instead of the Rock Solid Classic, that's the right approach to take. People demand new. They demand their breweries keep mixing things up.
Photo courtesy of, by Michael Beswick

Koch and his mega Samuel Adams brand are going to be shaking things up soon. First, by releasing a huge canned double IPA inspired in part by Heady Topper, and more notably, by demanding that it only stay on shelves for a short period of time, akin to Stone's Enjoy By series but even more aggressive. They're going to mandate that after 35 days it gets pulled from shelves in order to ensure freshness.

That's a pretty bold move, especially for a brewer as big as Sam Adams. It could change how some beers are handled at retail.

First, the beer itself. Koch recently told BostInno, "When you look at some of the iconic big IPAs, like Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper from here in New England, part of what makes them so renowned is people drink 'em fresh ... They get 'em at the brewery. If you have those beers two to three months into their life, they're not the same."

This beer is going to be an unfiltered double IPA clocking in at 10% ABV and available only in 16oz cans.

In other words, very inspired by Heady Topper.

Dabbling in big, hoppy beers is a bit unusual for them. They've done IPAs for years, of course -- they had an IPA way back in the 1990s before almost anyone else, messed with DIPAs several years back with Third Voyage, and these days have a full line of them, including Rebel Rouser (not to mention their awesome single-hop pack from a few years back). So, despite the scorn they get, they can do hoppy, too.

But a Heady clone is new ground for them.

The REAL new ground will be their stringent shelving policies for this beer, though.

They plan to give it a 35-day shelf life. After that, it must be pulled from the shelves. Wholesalers are probably going to do some grumbling about that, but you know what? It's a great move. I've ranted about bottle dating before, and for good reason. You want to be drinking your IPAs as fresh as possible. When they linger on the shelves too long, they go downhill ... some of them pretty quickly.

So why not force freshness? It's done with other types of food and drinks. If we care about it enough for frickin' Little Debbie snacks to get yanked after a time, we should care about it with beer, too, to the point of taking an aggressive hand in getting older IPAs off the shelves.

Retailers might not like it, but I'm all for it.

Though Sam Adams no longer gets much respect among today's beer crowd, I'm generally up for trying anything they do. This one will be released only in select markets (and they haven't said which markets yet), so we'll see if I can get my hands on some.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Busting 5 More Persistent Beer Myths

Some time back, I pulled out my trusty bow and quiver and, after accidentally killing my pet cat and a small family of nearby chipmunks*, took aim at some pernicious beer myths.

It's time to take aim at a few more, because there is no better feeling than lording some pointless piece of knowledge over someone in an effort to make yourself feel a little better about your small, sad little life. This selection is perhaps a touch more subjective than the last, but I have the benefit of being right, so I'm not too worried about any subjectivity here.

Here are 5 beer myths you should totally stop believing:

Contract Brewing is Bad

Photo courtesy of CraftCan on Photobucket
Contract brewing is something of a dirty word in the world of craft beer. Guys like Jimmy Carbone of Beer Sessions Radio routinely rant about how he refuses to support or respect contract brewed beers. Some have proclaimed it will be the death of craft beer. The idea of contract brewing is simple: you have a beer you want made, and you pay another brewery to make it for you. This may be because you don't own your own equipment, because your brewery doesn't have enough capacity, or for other reasons. The bottom line is, contact brewing is when Beer A is brewed down the road at Brewery X instead of by the people who own Beer A. And this really gets some people up in arms.

Which is silly. What matters is what's in your glass. You can't taste "passion." Owning your own brewery or equipment doesn't magically imbue it with magical properties that turn it into "real" craft beer. And guess what? If you've enjoyed some Sixpoint, Terrapin, 21st Amendment, Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, and even for a brief time Russian River, among countless other breweries, you've probably enjoyed some contract-brewed beer. (In order to keep up with demand while installing new equipment, Russian River had Firestone Walker brew Pliny the Elder for them.) Contract brewing is a business decision, nothing more, and despite what some idealists would have you believe, craft beer is a business. If the recipe is good and the end result is tasty, that's all that matters.

Lagers Are Boring

These lagers are delicious, you fool! Image from
Chat with some beer geeks (especially those just starting their exploration of beer) and you're bound to run into more than a few people who are quick to proclaim their disdain for boring old lagers. So bland! So dull!

Guess what? You're probably talking to someone who isn't as familiar with beer as they claim to be. "Lager" is a broad category, just like "ale," and it includes many styles. Lagers are simply beers brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast, usually at a colder temperature and often (but not always) stored in cold temps for a time after brewing. Legendary beers like Ayinger Celebrator or Aventinus? Lagers. Landmark smoked beers like Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock? Lagers. Baltic porters? They're lagers. Marzens aka Oktoberfest beers? Also lagers. Dunkels, schwarzbiers, bocks of all types? Lagers, lagers, lagers. If you really think all those beers are boring, you're either lying to save face or you have the most one-dimensional palate ever.

IPAs Were Invented To Survive The Trip to India

This one involves a little bit of hair-splitting, but if the Internet was invented for anything, it was for hair-splitting. According to this myth, the beloved India Pale Ale (IPA) was invented by George Hodgson in order to survive the long trip to India, something other beers couldn't do because they didn't have the copious amount of hops that IPAs did. He jacked up the ABV and hops to survive the trip, and that was that.

It's a great story, but it's not so simple. For this one, I'm going to turn things over to people a lot smarter than I am. First, take a gander at this excellent breakdown of some IPA myths by the outstanding beer historian Martyn Cornell, then throw in this one for good measure. This fantastic post from Beer Church tells the real story in clear terms. And one more to wrap things up from the superb Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. It all boils down to this: Other beers made the voyage to India just fine (especially the ever popular porter) and what evolved into today's IPA was largely an accident. It was never "invented," it merely evolved, and even that wording is a bit dubious. So there.

The Guys At (Insert Big Brewery Here) Are Terrible Brewers

Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone
Visit any thread on any beer discussion group that happens to mention Budweiser or one of the other mega breweries and inevitably you'll see a slew of comments about how awful those brewers are, if only they knew how to brew real beer, maybe Bud should hire someone with talent, blah blah frickin' blah.

There's no two ways about it: those comments are stupid. The fact of the matter is, the big breweries employ some of the most high skilled, best educated, most thoroughly trained brewers on the planet. Yes, even Budweiser. If they brew boring beer, it's because it's their job to -- and make no mistake, being able to make every can of Budweiser in America taste exactly the same is really damn hard. Even excellent craft breweries sometimes have some variation from batch to batch. Try doing the same with a beer so "simple" there is no place for off flavors to hide. Further proof can be found in the craft beer world. Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone, is just one of many former big brewery brewermasters who have moved into the craft wold (and who have done a killer job at it). Chris Lohring, founder of Notch Brewing, calls the big guys "the most technically proficient brewers in the world." Basically, hate their beer all you want, but respect the skills of the guys who make it. They're some of the best, even if their bosses don't let them show it.

The Big Breweries Use Sub Par Ingredients

Hops and barley. Photo by Algerina Perna
At the risk of being called an apologist for the big brewers -- two entries about them in a row will do that, despite this blog being a clear indication of what I tend to drink -- I'm going to go ahead and tackle this one. This myth is simple: the big brewers like Coors and Budweiser buy all sorts of cheap, shitty ingredients and bottom of the barrel hops and grains so they can make their lousy beer as cheaply as possible.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The fact is, those mega brewers have contracts with the same hop and grain producers who provide the ingredients for craft beer. They've invested a lot in them. Further, because of the huge volume of business they provide these farmers, they get first dibs on the product -- and they're known to have stringent standards. "Each truckload of barley is sampled and tested at delivery. If it fails to meet company standards for quality, the barley is rejected and likely becomes cattle feed." Stone's Mitch Steele has discussed this on podcasts, saying that the folks at A-B were damn near tyrannical about buying the best on the market before anyone else could. And as for the adjuncts, I've already addressed that. The finished product may not be for you and me, but it's not because they're using lousy ingredients. It's because they're tying to reach Joe Six-Pack who just wants to down some beers and watch the game.

So there you have it. Five more beer myths that needed busting. Agree, disagree? Comment down below and give me the validation I crave.

The End.

*This is probably a work of fiction. I probably didn't kill any animals in the writing of that post.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

U.S. now has over 4,000 breweries. How many is too many?

According to the Brewer's Association, the trade group that represents craft beer, there are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States. That's approaching the high of 4,131 the U.S.boasted in 1873, before the Temperance Movement, and later Prohibition, and then after THAT the big corporate brewers, laid waste to beer brewing in America.

That's pretty remarkable, when you consider that within our lifetime (or at least within my lifetime) there were as few as 89 breweries operating in the United States. There are now more than that in the Portland metro area alone!

Chart courtesy of

Of course, many of us remember the craft beer boom of the 1990s. It was a glorious time. It was a time when Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada and others were just starting to make waves. Between 1986 and 1995, craft beer grew at rate of up to 75 percent a year. That growth dwarfed even today's beer explosion. Sure, I had to drive 30 minutes to get to the only decent beer store in the area, but the fact that decent beer even existed was a revolution.

In 1997, that growth hit a wall. Between 1997 and 2003, craft beer barely budged. Some years, there was no growth at all. It began to slowly tick upwards after that, but didn't begin to surge again until 2010, when the craft beer segment began experiencing double-digit growth that continues to today.

But can it last? Is there a so-called "bubble" that is threatening to burst, leaving hundreds of broken breweries in its wake?

It's a question that many people have been asking the last several years.

Breweries in planning, circa 2011

Despite my misgivings about the quality of many of the newest breweries, I don't think so. At least not any time soon.

Breweries like Stone, New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and Lagunitas are petty big fish, but only in a small pond. They seem big to craft beer nerds, but in truth they border on being nobodies. Really influential nobodies, to be sure, but hardly the giants we often think they are. As Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione recently pointed out, "I guess we are somewhere around one tenth of one percent of the US beer industry."

And these are the BIG craft breweries. Most are reeeaally damn tiny. That 4,000 figure includes nano breweries operating out of garages and barns, small brewpubs that make just enough beer to supply their restaurant, and so on. They serve very local, very small customer bases, just like breweries did over 100 years ago.

As the Brewer's Association points out:

Most of the new entrants continue to be small and local, operating in neighborhoods or towns. What it means to be a brewery is shifting, back toward an era when breweries were largely local, and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant

How many neighborhoods in the country could still stand to gain from a high-quality brewpub or micro taproom? While a return to the per capita ratio of 1873 seems unlikely (that would mean more than 30,000 breweries), the resurgence of American brewing is far from over.

That's not to say we're not feeling the squeeze. Talk to the person who runs your local beer shop and they'll probably tell you that there just isn't enough shelf space for all the new beers coming out. I have a solid half-dozen really good beer stores within five minutes or so of my house, and between the six of them they still can't maintain a selection of all the beers supposedly available in our area.

Photo courtesy of a really stupid column.

There is a lot of competition in the craft beer world. There will only be more. A lot of beers will get squeezed off the shelves. One bar owner told Draft Magazine in 2013:

“Frankly, I’m pretty convinced that the market [here] won’t support all of these breweries ... From talking to all of the bar owners in the market, we all have that opinion. There are a few breweries right now that none of us, meaning respected beer bars, support regularly. They sort of get ‘pity handles’ because we’re all on the same team.”

But there is room to grow, especially in areas not yet served by several good local/regional breweries, and even when that growth begins to slow -- and it inevitably will -- it's hard to envision a collapse. Today's beer drinker has been exposed to better beers right from the start. Sure, they will often still buy a cheap 30-pack of something because college + spending money don't usually go together, but from a taste perspective they have different expectations than people from my father and grandfather's generation.

Sure, my shop of choice doesn't stock half of what I want to drink because there is literally too much great beer out there for them to stock, but for the moment all that means is that every good beer shop is unique, with a selection not duplicated by the shop down the road. It makes every store you visit a beer adventure.

And that's hardly a bad thing. It means demand is still huge.

More importantly, people are still demanding good beer made nearby. As long as that demand remains -- and I don't see it waning any time soon -- we'll continue to see craft beer grow.

The sky is not falling. The good stuff is here to stay. Sure, make no mistake, there is NOT much room for competition in the upper echelon of the craft beer world. They're already starting to step on one anothers toes. There is room for only so many Founders and Bell's and Samuel Adams to go around.

The small, uber local guys are another story.

Four thousand breweries is a lot ... but we'll get to 5,000. Bet on it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tipping my hat to Anchor Brewing

Anchor Steam
If you can't appreciate Anchor Steam, you're no beer friend of mine.

Anchor Steam is one of the grandaddies of craft beer in America. It's just one beer from the excellence-filled Anchor lineup, but this one is something special. It's a landmark. It's a mainstay. It's a bottle of history.

Oh, and it holds up wonderfully, too. Many who are new to craft beer scoff at Anchor Steam. After all, it doesn't feature any crazy ingredients or style-busting flavors. Nope, it's just a damn good beer. Not going to blow your mind, not going to take you to new beer places, not going to push the boundaries of taste. Just going to provide a good, basic, "this is a good drinking beer" experience ideal for friends, food and conversation.

For some reason, that kind of thing is rejected by many of today's crop of craft crazies. That's too bad. There is a lot to be said for a beer that aspires to be nothing more than an excellent, impeccably crafted-yet-simple beer.

Beyond Anchor Steam, anyone and everyone who enjoys craft beer in America owes a small debt to Anchor Brewing. They were among the pioneers who helped get the movement started.

By now the story is legend. The brewery had been around since 1896 or so, quietly churning out beers, with their "steam beer," a uniquely American style now referred to as a California Common, being their mainstay. (A California Common is essentially a lager brewed at ale temperatures, giving it the smoothness of a lager with the fruity bite of an ale.) By the 1960s, though, they weren't going very well. Fritz Maytag, great grandson of THE Maytag, however, really loved their beer, so he did what any filthy rich beer lover would do: he bought the place.

Maytag prompted Anchor to reinvent themselves. They improved their processes and brought back traditional styles that had been all but forgotten in America, among them porters and barleywines. By the mid-1970s, they were probably the best brewers in America.

Even more important, they inspired a slew of others to follow in their footsteps and begin brewing craft beer. You wouldn't be enjoying your Stone and Dogfish Head and Bruery and New Belgium and Samuel Adams and Lost Abbey and on and on and on if it weren't for folks like Anchor Steam, New Albion, Sierra Nevada (who themselves credit Anchor and New Albion as major influences), and a very small (very small) handful of others.

Anchor Brekle's Brown
Steam isn't their only beer worth drinking, either. Their Old Foghorn barleywine may not impress those who like today's hopped-up barleywines, but if you like them traditional this is a classic. Their lager is good. They do a great summer ale. Love their brown. And oh, did I mention the porter?

If you haven't had Anchor Porter in a while, or at all, give it a try. Many decades after it was first made -- it was first brewed in 1972, waaaaay before almost every other porter on the market -- it's still one of the best classic porters made in the States.

Consider that for a moment. This is a beer that can go head-to-head with any American porter being brewed today. It's a definitive example of the style. Set it next to some of today's best, like Founder's and Bell's, and it is their equal or better.

And this beer was hitting shelves 40 years ago, during a time when light lagers were pretty much the only game in town! That's astonishing. That was back when good, robust beer was all but dead in America. And here you have Anchor putting out this inky black stuff that was all body and flavor. Talk about ahead of their time.

Loving Anchor isn't all about celebrating the past. All these years later, they're still a fantastic brewery and a model on how to do it right.

I will always, always tip my glass to Anchor. And you should, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I've been gone too long. Time to get some beer on!

It feels like forever since I blogged about beer.

It's not that I haven't been writing about beer. I write a weekly beer column for the Philly Weekly, which appears online in a slightly different, daily-dose form and which gives me my regular fix when it comes to waxing poetic about suds. I've written about the beer scene in Atlantic City and bacon and beer coming together, too, among other things.

But blogging?

I've barely touched my main blog. Small chance I'd be on top of this one, too.

I do miss it sometimes, though. There are things worth saying that aren't a good fit for my column. A lot of it is grumpy old man stuff about how much the current craft beer scene frustrates me, but a lot of it is the usual upbeat, beer-positive stuff I prefer to focus on, too.

Reviews? Probably not so much. Everyone and their dog does beer reviews -- you can't spit at a Google server without frying a dozen beer review blogs, podcasts and Youtube channels -- and frankly, how much purpose do they really serve? It all comes down to "is this good or is this bad," and tastes vary so wildly the distinction can be all but meaningless.

But maybe some commentary. And pictures. Or something.

Because hey, beer is awesome. Writing is awesome. They're like my chocolate and peanut butter.

And I love me the hell out of some peanut butter cups. So let's do this thing (at least until I get tired of it).