Category Archives: beer & the web

No, There Aren’t Too Many Breweries in the United States

Not yet, at least. But for some odd reason, the subject keeps climbing back into the mainstream, most recently in a story by Joshua Bernstein in Bon Appétit online, which when shared on Facebook emerges with the headline “The U.S. Craft Beer Market Is Way Overcrowded – Bon Appétit.”

That sentiment is not actually reflected directly in the story, the online version of which boasts the more equivocal title of “America Now Has Over 3,000 Craft Breweries—and That’s Not Necessarily Great for Beer Drinkers,” but the sentiment has launched a flurry of discussion around the web.

So let’s get this straight: 3,000 breweries are NOT too many for the United States and increased selection is NOT bad for beer drinkers.

Got it? Good! Now, here’s why.

At 3,000 breweries, the United States is now beginning to approach the breweries per population ratio we have in Canada, and in fact, depending on the brewery count for Canada you use – an accurate count in the country is almost impossible to ascertain – could already have reached the same level. But we’re not exactly awash in breweries north of the border, and I have yet to witness the “bloodbath” predicted by Sam Calagione in Bernstein’s story.

That brewery to population ratio, by the way, is about one per every 105,000 people. Which in a global context is actually pretty laughable.

How so? Look at the United Kingdom, for starters, where they boast a brewery for roughly every 55,500 citizens. Or Germany, with one for every 61,500 people. Or little Belgium, where every 70,000 individuals could claim a brewery of their own, should they be so inclined.

And that’s counting only traditional brewing powers. Wade into the numbers of nations that are experiencing their own craft beer renaissances, as is the U.S., and some of the numbers drop even further, like Switzerland, Denmark and New Zealand.

But wait, I hear American brewers arguing, we have the three tier system, which means that distributors are going to fill up and not want to carry any more brands. Which is why, I counter, microdistributors are beginning to appear all around the USA, and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as the demand for their services persists. Besides, more and more states are allowing self-distribution, which is surely sufficient for smaller operations.

But even so, I hear in the distance, it’s not necessarily about the distributors, but the proliferation of SKUs (the acronym for “store keeping units,” the short form for a distinct item in retail sale, such as a bomber of beer, a six-pack or a case, which represent three SKUs even if they are of the same brand). Except that most of these little start-ups are selling not from variety stores or supermarkets, where SKU quantity is an issue, but from their own stores or pubs or one or two of a handful of specialty retailers. And as for bars, well, more taps are coming on-stream daily in the United States, both from new bars and restaurants and existing ones which are changing from regular brews to crafts. (Even Pete Coors sees that happening, although he hasn’t yet quite figured out why.)

Regardless of all the above, however, I’ve still the most compelling reason why a beer bloodbath is not forthcoming in my hip pocket. Now pay attention, because here it comes.

Roughly 92% of the overall American beer market is NOT craft.

That’s about 180 million barrels of beer, folks, which is a whole frigging lot! So long as craft brewers continue to eat away at that part of the market, as they have been doing for decades now, there will remain plenty of room in the marketplace for 3,000 or even 4,000 breweries. And for brewers who don’t think they can chip away at that massive core of the marketplace, well, you might as well hang up your wellies now.

 

 

 

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The Food Babe Thought She Could Spread Paranoia Among Beer Drinkers. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

There’s this pile of bullshit being spread around the Internet today courtesy of a presumed charlatan called the Food Babe. It involves ingredients in beer. Please don’t read her demented ramblings. Instead, read this and this.

That is all.

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Looking for the El Bulli of Spanish Beer

There are a multitude of excuses one can use to justify a trip to Spain: tapas, incredible landscapes, Spanish cider (sidra), the Costa de Sol, Gaudí, jamón in all its many forms, flamenco.

What you don’t use as the basis for an Iberian excursion is beer. Which, I suppose, is precisely why I did so.

In the years since Tim Webb and I signed a contract to produce The World Atlas of Beer, and especially since we decided to follow that with The Pocket Beer Guide, I have become borderline obsessed with countries boasting nascent and developing craft beer cultures. First for me was Italy, an interest which I must admit predated the Atlas by a few years, but was kicked into overdrive by my research for the book. Then arrived Brazil, a nation known by few North American beer aficionados, but which is making astonishingly rapid improvements in both quantity and quality of craft beer. Then Argentina, Singapore, France, Poland.

And Spain. So when we decided to make The Pocket Beer Guide into an annual publication and our intrepid Anglo-Spanish-Czech correspondent Max Bahnson wasn’t available to get the inside scoop on Iberia, as he did for the first edition, I volunteered to do the research myself. After all, I was going to be in Belgium anyway, and since Madrid is but a mere 1,000 or so miles from Brussels, by the deeply twisted logic of the chronic beer obsessive, it really did make a lot of sense.

My research started with the good folk at Iberian Beer United, importers of numerous Spanish breweries, and the operator of the Twitter account for the Barcelona Beer Festival, who later revealed himself to be Mikel Rius, one of the young fest’s founders. As often happens in beer circles, they led me to others, who in turn led me to still others, and before long my week divided between Madrid and Barcelona was promising to be a whirlwind of tasting and discovery.

My only hopeFabrica Maravillas was that at least some of the beers I’d be sampling would stand up to serious critique.

Arriving in the Spanish capital on a Sunday evening, I was faced with both great hunger and the realization that most of Madrid’s beer joints are closed on Sundays. Except, that is, for a brewpub called Fábrica Maravillas, shoehorned into a modest storefront in a district just north of the city center. And so off I went. (Continue reading at The Celebrator online…)

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Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Beer City”

Oy!

Just two days — TWO DAYS! — after I responded to a Facebook post about yet another list of supposed “Best Beer Cities,” and sagely decide not to follow further the fruitless path of argument, I come across still another such list. It’s orchestrated in a different, although by no means unique, fashion, but is as flawed as the other and all the rest for one simple reason.

There is no such thing as a frigging “Best Beer City!” Or Cities! Period. End of story.

Look, I enjoy a good list as much as the next guy, and I’m not exactly the kind of person who back down happily from a robust debate, but there are simply too many factors at play to ever resolve the issue of best beer city. In the mind of the drinks guy over at the Seattle P-I, whom I will neither name nor link to for reasons related to past conversations, brewery count would seem to be the defining factor. For Magnolia’s Dave McLean, it’s history, longevity and food and drink culture. For Jeff Alworth, the deciding factor is craft beer in dive bars. And for me, well, I like a great beer bar over a great brewery and think that the ability to get a diversity of local, regional, national and international beers is key, as is the opportunity to enjoy a really good meal with a glass of really good beer.

But that doesn’t mean I know what city is best any more than it means Jeff or Dave or P-I guy does, mainly because, like the beer I drink, where I like to drink it changes with the circumstance! Put me on the west coast and I might be happy as Larry in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and in awe of the beer scenes in each city. Pick me up and plant me in Denver or New York City or Philadelphia and I’ll be equally delighted there. Teleport me to Montreal and you’ll soon find me at Dieu du Ciel or Cheval Blanc or Au Pied du Cochon, most likely with a wide grin on my face.

Let me put it another way. The northern German city of Köln, or Cologne, is known for a single style of beer, one which most people find rather unremarkable. It has not — to my experience, at least — fine dining restaurants where you can sample excellent beer with your meal, and neither has it a plethora of good beer bars. Yet thanks to its general pedestrian friendliness, fabulous old city district, exceptional culture and, dammit, the superb quality of some of those kölsches that others sweep aside as ordinary “lawnmower beers,” it is one of my favourite places in Germany, Europe and the world in which to drink beer.

And please note, that was “favourite,” not “best.”

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THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer

People are stressing over craft beer these days. They’re saying it is irrelevant, or that it’s jumped the shark tank or gone mainstream. All of which is probably true, to greater or lesser degrees, but fails to address the central point. Which is that craft beer is simple to define.

But first, let us look at what craft beer is not. It is certainly not what the Brewers Association defines craft beer to be*, which is to say it has little to do with size or ownership or, saints preserve us, tradition. Craft was never the BA’s to define, so there is no reason we should arbitrarily accept their understandably self-serving definition.

(Two notes: “understandably self-serving” because, let’s face it, their raison d’être is to function as an industry representation and lobby group for small breweries, aka craft breweries. And it was never theirs to define because what is to my knowledge the first verifiable instance of its use, in Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, was published in 1977, long before the BA came into being.)

It is also not “revolutionary,” “honest” or – spare me from this word, please! –  “authentic,” as the fellows from BrewDog seem to think. And neither is it evil-in-a-keg, as the hierarchy of the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) sometimes appear to believe.

Simply, craft beer is beer created from the perspective of producing great tasting beer. Not beer that will fit a certain market segment or beer that should appeal to males aged 21 to 29 or beer that will be at its best when served a degree or two above freezing temperature, but beer designed to be full of flavour and character. Period.

Craft beer = birra artigianale = bière artisanale = cerveja artisanal artesanal=  cerveza artisanal = (I think) håndværk øl. It’s beer for the world of beer drinkers who care about the taste and character of what they’re drinking, whether it comes from one of the largest brewing companies in the world or the person brewing in their restaurant kitchen down the road.

Size and ownership and ingredients can have an impact on whether a beer might be defined as craft or not – big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev have consistently proved themselves to be poor stewards of brands brewed for flavour rather than for perceived market appeal – but mostly they are matters of personal politics. Which is not to say that these factors are unimportant, just that they are not specifically what defines a beer as craft.

Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage, hoping that others would agree and thus purchase their wares. When CAMRA fought back against the rise of bland keg ales and lagers, they were in effect defending that ethic, just as early American microbrewery operators were emulating their spiritual ancestors by brewing beers with greater flavour and character than what was flooding the market at the time.

And today, from Seattle to Singapore and Rome to Ribeirão Preto, craft brewers are still supporting that same idea, and in so doing shaking the very foundation upon which the modern beer market has been built. So I guess yes, maybe craft beer is a bit revolutionary, but it’s still principally about flavour.

* Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association wrote me to express the following: “One factual point–the Brewers Association does not define craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a U.S craft brewer.” I countered that it could be argued one begets the other, but his point is well taken. Essentially the BA is providing membership criteria rather than seeking to define craft beer as an entity. This note is added two days after the original post appeared.

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Beer for Thanksgiving: It’s Simple!

So I hear that next Thursday, November 28, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I’m a Canadian, so typically I only become aware of the U.S. holiday when I start seeing stories pop up about what to drink with the Thanksgiving meal, like this one, this one and this one. And usually, as with the three just noted, each article features numerous options, all the better for editors to draw audiences and writers to cover their asses.

Me, I’m reckless, so I’m going to tell you about the one and only beverage you need at the table for your turkey dinner. It is traditional gueuze lambic.

Believe me, it works, and deliciously so! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed turkey and lambic on numerous occasions and have served it to my friends who “don’t like beer” and to beer aficionados who don’t particularly like lambic, to unanimous delight. In fact, I cannot think of a single occasion where someone has not expressed great pleasure at the combination, often coupled with a fair degree of surprise. Plate the turkey and pop the corks of gueuze from Cantillon or Drie Fonteinen or De Cam or Tilquin or last month’s category winner at the Brussels Beer Challenge, Lindemans Cuvée René, serving it in wine glasses or straight-sided tumblers or even champagne flutes. You won’t regret a drop.

The reason it works relates principally to the combination of flavours on the plate — bird, gravy, potatoes and veg, maybe a cranberry sauce or some turnips, plus usually a bunch of salt. The lambic serves to cut through all that with its tartness and carbonation (from bottle refermentation) and acidity, striking to the heart of, and accentuating the flavour of, the star of the table, the turkey. It won’t compete with the other flavours, and neither will it drown them. In fact, about the only other beverage that approaches the utility and perfection of lambic at Thanksgiving, in my view, is the beer’s vinous cousin, champagne.

And where next Thursday’s dinner is concerned, that’s all you need to know. You can thank me later.

 

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“More Bad News for Beer” is Actually Good News for Beer

My colleague and friend, Jack Robertiello, recently wrote a story for Nightclub & Bar Magazine entitled “More Bad News for Beer.” I was intrigued and surfed over to the website to read it, and then walked away smiling. Here’s why.

The “bad news” that Jack reports is almost exclusively about the big name, mass-produced convenience beers that we all know and probably don’t love all that much. You know the ones I’m referring to, those that distinguish themselves from the competition by how cold they are, how long they’ve been around or how “innovative” their bottle may be. (Amusingly, the side panel ad that appeared when I loaded the online version of the story promoted the “new bottle” for Miller Lite.) And yes, for such brands the news truly is bad.

At the heart of Jack’s story is a recently published consumer survey reporting declines in the overall popularity of beer and the numbers are indeed, on the surface, at least, bleak. Two percent fewer adults of legal drinking age were identifying beer as their “go to” beverage compared to the same time period in 2012; 21 to 27 year olds were deserting beer in significant volumes, with 33 percent saying it was their favourite alcoholic beverage as compared to 39 percent a year earlier; and three percent fewer men were siding with beer than did in 2012.

Thing is, though, those sad numbers are almost exclusively about big beer. How do I know? Well, check this out: “The major reason given by 21-27 year olds when asked why they are consuming less beer – 39 percent said they are ‘getting tired of the taste of beer.’” Sounds more like comment about a Bud Light or Coors Light than it does a Dogfish 60 Minute IPA or New Belgium Ranger, doesn’t it? And about craft beer, this is about the most negative thing Jack has to report: “…and crafts, while increasing dramatically, offer a wild and ever changing array of selections that can make the average consumer’s head spin.”

Too much selection and variety in craft beer may be an issue down the road, but judging from the bar owners and operators, and consumers, I’ve been speaking with over the last year — not all of them by any means beer aficionados or craft specialists — it isn’t now.

In fact, where bars and restaurants are concerned, variety in craft beer appears to be a big selling point, since people generally go out for experiences they can’t otherwise get at home, ie: new varieties of draught beer. But don’t believe me, believe the Adult Beverage Insights Group of the research firm Technomic, who report that when only bar and restaurant sales are accounted for, craft beer’s overall market share skyrockets from about 6.5 percent to an impressive 15 percent of total beer sales.

So yes, this really is a good news story.

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Bigger, Stronger, Hoppier…Just Stop It!

In case you missed it, a Scottish brewery called Brewmeister announced yesterday that they had topped their own record for the world’s strongest “beer” – reason for the quotation marks to follow – with a 67.5% alcohol liquid called Snake Venom. The bottle, The Scotsman reports, comes with a warning that no more than the contents of a single, 275 ml bottle should be consumed per sitting.

There is so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. But I’ll try.

First up, unless Brewmeister has somehow come up with a way for yeast to survive in a ridiculously high alcohol environment, this is not a beer and neither is it the product of brewing per se. It is something that was once a beer before it was freeze distilled into a spirit, as are the slew of other “world’s strongest beers” that have come to market in recent years. (I’m looking at you BrewDog and Schorschbräu.) When you brew a beer, you ferment out sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. When you concentrate that alcohol by eliminating a large amount of the water content, that’s distilling. Period.

Secondly, who cares?! Producing the world’s strongest “beer” is right up there with producing the world’s most caloric hamburger and the world’s most tannic wine. It’s an empty, useless gesture than has nothing to do with the item intended to be consumed and everything to do with laying claim to a pointless title.

Thirdly, this is irresponsible to a massive degree. The one bottle per sitting that the brewery recommends you not exceed contains an enormous amount of alcohol, 185.625 millilitres by my calculations. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent in pure alcohol of drinking just under 62% of a 750 ml bottle of 40% alcohol spirits, or in other words, enough booze to potentially make a person very, very sick.

And fourthly, this kind of “bigger, stronger, hoppier” bullshit is precisely what craft beer is NOT about! Beer should be about flavour, not strength or massive, unbridled bitterness, and headline-grovelling attempts like this simply undermine everything that skilled and dedicated artisanal craft brewers around the world are trying to achieve. As Garrett Oliver once famously stated, no chef goes bragging about how they make the saltiest soup, and neither should anyone proud of their brewing skills be wading into the “bigger, stronger, hoppier” realm.

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Beer is NOT the New Wine!

My late friend and colleague, Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser, once stated, “People ask me if I also drink wine, as if beer is a prison rather than a playground.”

With that statement, Michael deftly summarized the problem with headlines like this one, which imply that people might or even should drink one thing over another to the point of exclusivity. Like Michael, I am fond of a glass of wine or whisky, or a pint of dry cider or a well-made cocktail. And even though I’ve written or co-written eight books on beer, I would balk at ever suggesting that ale or lager is categorically better than wine or spirits.

The point being that a multitude of different flavours exists in all three broad categories of alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and spirits, plus cider and saké – and still more flavours might be obtained when any of the above are mixed together into a cocktail. Each of these deserve exploration by curious imbibers, and if one or another proves not to be to your taste, then so be it.

Just don’t suggest to me that because of the size of shape of the bottle, or the trendiness of the advertising and marketing, than any one beverage is the “new” version of another, entirely different beverage. Beer is beer, wine is wine, and spirits are spirits. Period.

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A Big Batch of Beer Books – Part 3

Northern California BreweriesI’m not even going to feign impartiality when it comes to reviewing California Breweries North by Jay Brooks.

First off, Jay is one of my oldest friends in the beer world. We’ve eaten together, drank together, travelled together, I’ve stayed at his house and he even hauled his entire family across the continent to attend my wedding reception five and a bit years ago! Secondly, I contributed a quote for the back cover of this very book.

So let’s instead just look at the facts and figures of this paperback. It has 406 text-dense pages. It covers 161 breweries from the Central Coast north to the Oregon border. Jay logged literally thousands of miles researching it. And even though it lacks the critical evaluations I just two days ago was complaining were absent from Joe Wiebe’s book, I can’t fault Jay for that, since it is the established style of this series of Stackpole beer guides to offer a single stand-out beer, known as “The Pick,” rather than rate and review multiple brews.

For the northern California traveller, it is arguably of slightly less utility than is last year’s Northern California Craft Beer Guide by Ken Weaver. For those interested in the state of northern California brewing today, however, it is indispensable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the two editions complement each other nicely, with California Breweries North being the one to consult when deciding what brewery to visit and what beers to drink, and the Northern California Craft Beer Guide being the one to keep in the car.

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