Category Archives: beer blogs

Not ‘Locals Only’

Okay, so before everyone thinks I’ve taken direct aim at southern Ontario breweries with my series of recent tweets, let me assure one and all I have not. And for those of you not in Ontario, please bear with me, as I guarantee some more universal observations by the end of this post.

Before I explain, however, a pair of the pertinent tweets for those who missed them:

Seems to me that @TorontoBeerWeek is unintentionally highlighting the severe lack of imported draught beer in #Toronto.

Should beer writers/bloggers “support local”? IMO, no, they should support good! #localnotsameasgood

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, taken outside of the context in which I was trying to frame them, those could be seen to be voicing vocal support for ‘outside’ beer and foisting criticism on the local stuff. But really it’s all about drinking quality, opening the market to greater choice and, frankly, raising the bar for craft beer in general.

Let me explain.

In Ontario, a government policy restricting draught beer importing licenses to four companies severely limits the availability of imported beer – even from other Canadian provinces – and makes it more expensive when it does get in. This causes a resulting overabundance of local beers on the taps of our beer bars, to the point that many are unintentionally exclusive or near-exclusive Ontario-only bars.

In my view, this situation has multiple effects, at least one of which plays into my second tweet.

  • Lack of selection for Ontario beer drinkers;
  • Lack of context for products and styles brewed locally;
  • An unwitting ‘free pass,’ or at least less critical critique, given to certain local beers because, as per point 2, there is little or nothing of the same style/type/flavour profile available for purposes of comparison.

(I have personally witnessed point number 3 in action, both locally and elsewhere, many times.)

None of which to say there is no excellent beer brewed in Ontario – there is, and even more very good beer and still more good beer – but in my view it is not enough to say ‘buy local’ or ‘support your local brewer’ without excessive care being given by the brewer first to character, quality control and, to at least some degree, consistency.

Further, the presence of great beers from around the world gives local brewers access to breweries that can inspire them to even greater things. (This, too, I’ve seen in action.) For multiple examples, take the opening up of any formerly closed economy and the corresponding rise in quality products once competition arrived.

And finally, I object strenuously to the notion that beer writers should champion local products. We are not, or should not be, champions for breweries, but for consumers. A writer’s role, whether columnist or blogger or freelance scribe, is to serve the reader, in many cases by sorting through the morass of beer and saying “yes, this is great, but this one not so much.” Regardless of whether the beers in question are local or not.

This approach also works to the ultimate benefit of the brewery, too, since a body of critical reviews should be sufficient to convince the brewer that perhaps something about the beer is flawed or at least not as good as it could be. Resulting in better beer, better sales and happier customers, which is, in the end, the ultimate goal.

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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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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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A Big Batch of Beer Books – Part 1

This fall must be the biggest season ever for beer and beverage books. My shelves are heaving with review copies, and quite frankly several of them are very good!

Of course, I’m partial to The Pocket Beer Guide/Pocket Beer Book 2014 – depending on where you are; it’s the former in North America and the latter in the U.K. – but I’m also excited about the efforts of many of my friends and colleagues. Beginning with a Canadian offering by the “Thirsty Writer” himself, Joe Wiebe.

Joe’s admittedly over-the-top titled Craft Beer Revolution is more reasonably, and descriptively, subtitled “The insider’s guide to B.C. breweries,” B.C. being Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia. It is the first attempt at documenting that region’s burgeoning beer scene since Leo Buijs’ 2010 Beers of British Columbia, and is several degrees better.

Testament to the growth in the B.C. beer scene of late, Wiebe spends precious little time on preambles and instead launches into his brewery reviews on page 13, beginning with the stretch between Vancouver and Whistler, known as the Sea-to-Sky. He then barrels through Victoria, the islands, Vancouver itself, the south mainland and Fraser Valley and two districts of the interior, ending with “Caps, Corks & Coasters,” a collection of data, debate and a bit of diatribe. In the mix along the way are essays on everything from craft distilleries to why so few brewpubs survive in downtown Vancouver.

Wiebe’s approach is casual and personal, like any good beer guide should be. He has no problem beginning an entry “I first visited…” and neither does he shy away from the inclusion of anecdotes, personal and otherwise. While I would like to see more hard criticism – too many beers of dubious character are given positive spin – there is enough about each brew that a careful reader will be able to easily sort the wheat from the chaff.

Overall, if you’re a beer drinker living in or visiting British Columbia, this book will pay for itself in no time. Get a copy.

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On Bubbles, Craft Brewers, the BA and Naysayers

On Facebook yesterday, I posted this link. Then all heck broke loose.

(In truth, it wasn’t that big a deal, hence all “heck” breaking loose, rather than all hell.)

Various people chimed in, some of whom mentioned to me privately that they had already taken Mr. Watson to task for what they viewed as, at minimum, a too rosy view of things, and at worst, a full-on effort at propagandizing. Me, I thought it was a pretty decent response to what I’ve been reading in the media of late and hearing from certain brewers for over a year now. (Remember that the BA’s main audience is the craft brewing community – the article actually appears in their “community” section –  and therefore it is reasonable to assume that those nay-saying brewers were at least high among their intended audience targets.)

Here’s why:

–        There have been plenty stories of late about the craft beer “bubble” and whether or not it shall shortly burst. The article is, to my mind, clearly intended to balance those stories, many of which have repeated what I would view as misplaced assumptions – more about those below – and I think did a reasonable job of it.

–        In terms of brewery numbers, what Mr. Watson states is true in that the United States is not even close to brewery saturation when compared to other markets, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. In order for parity with those and other countries to occur, on a brewery per population basis, the U.S. would need to double the number of breweries it currently boasts.

–        The suggestion that the market for craft beer is not growing is false. Critics point to the relatively stagnant nature of the American beer market, but that misses the point. Major beer brands have been in free-fall for the past several years – Bud Light has experienced five years of declining sales! – which has freed up major amounts of market share for the craft brewers. (And even so, the U.S. beer market grew 1% last year, which amounts to an additional 2 million barrels of demand.)

–        New breweries regularly come to market with small amounts of brewing capacity, as little as a few hundred barrels. As such, the impact of the regularly reported 1,200+ planned – note, not work-in-progress, but planned – breweries will be minor. (1,200 x 500 barrels = 600,000 barrels, and that’s being extremely generous on the production numbers side.)

–        New outlets for craft beer sales are coming online on a very regular basis. As someone who has worked with hospitality companies numerous times over the past several years and annually speaks at conferences involving top hospitality executives, I have seen the interest develop and grow first hand. I noted last year that when the restaurant company Darden (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) bought the multi-tap chain Yard House, it represented a sea change in the market for craft beer. That Yard House has been Darden’s top performing brand over the last year only cements that observation.

–        To suggest that the graph Mr. Watson presents is comparing apples to oranges – ie: financial data to brewery numbers – is to miss the point. In my view, he is clearly observing that the shape of the dotcom bubble and the craft beer “bubble” are apparently quite different.

Of course, none of the above is to suggest that unrestrained growth in the craft beer sector is sustainable indefinitely – you’d need be an idiot to infer that. But the likening of the current times for craft brewing in the United States to a “bubble” connotes the idea that the “bubble” is about to burst, and I’ve seen nothing that suggests it will any time soon. Mr. Watson’s analysis might be the most cogent or thoughtfully presented, but its conclusion is, I believe, correct.

There will be failures in the craft brewing sector. There may even be a number of them within the next, say, five or seven years, but even a few hundred mostly small and off-the-radar breweries going out of business is not about to burst any “bubble.” Craft beer is on track to continue its growth – all market indicators suggest as much, including the travails the big brewers in North America are experiencing these days – and that means there will be market share to fill, as much as 2 million barrels this year and perhaps as much or even more in 2014.

It will require a lot of brewery expansion à la Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, plus a large number of new brewery arrivals to fill that capacity. The thirst is evident, and I see nothing to suggest it is even close to being fully quenched.

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Beer Pricing: A Little Less Hyperbole, Please

In my morning edition of The Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday, wine critic Beppi Crosariol wrote about the Sam Adams Utopias, Boston Beer’s high-end, high-alcohol, outrageously complex beer, the tenth anniversary edition of which has just come up for sale in Ontario at a price of $114.95 for the 710 ml bottle.

While he does a pretty good job at describing Utopias and placing it within the current state of beer and brewing culture, Crosariol does get a little hung up on the beer’s cost, variously employing such phrases as “nosebleed prices,” “exorbitant prices” and “stratospheric prices,” and comparing it to “Rolex watches and Prada purses.”

Really?

A Rolex goes for tens of thousands of dollars, and although I know nothing about the cost of Pradas, I’ve got to assume by dint of their reputation that they hit the same sort of price points. So how, pray, does that equate to a $115 bottle of beer, one which is intended to be consumed in small potions over days or weeks, rather than minutes or hours. Or, in other words, more like a single malt whisky or cognac than a Coors Light or Bud?

To answer that question, or at least further the debate, let’s take a look at what it all means. The last time Crosariol wrote about something to be sipped and savoured over a lengthy period of weeks or months, the Balvenie 17 Year Old Double Wood, he described the $167.95 bottle as “expensive.” Not stratospheric or exorbitant, just expensive. Before that we had the 15 year old Nikka Miyagikyo with nary a mention of the cost, despite the Japanese whisky’s $189.20 price. So, double standard?

Now, how about breaking down the cost of Utopias on a per drink basis? There are 24 ounces in a bottle and, at 29% alcohol, a generous pour would be about 2 of those ounces, making for a dozen total servings. Do the math and that comes out to less than $10 a serving, or about what one might pay for a glass of ho-hum wine in a restaurant. Still stratospheric? I think not.

By coincidence, on the same day that Crosariol was simultaneously adulating and excoriating Utopias, Clay Risen was over at the New York Times bemoaning the rise of big bottle beers, suggesting that, counter to every indicator imaginable – store sales, restaurant sales, brewery sell-throughs – there is some sort of backlash brewing against “expensive” 750 ml bottles of beer.

Jay Brooks does a thorough job of dismembering Risen’s story here, so I won’t go much into it myself, but in keeping with the tone of this post, I would like to take a moment to address the supposed price-based revolt.

At a high of $30 in stores, these beers are in the same price class as many wines, including a good number that lack complexity equivalent to the best of such brews. (And to be fare, many that provide equal or better value.) Yet it would be a brave writer indeed who took issue with $20 – $30 wines as a group, implying that drinkers are sick of such high prices and long for a return to jug wine. Which is not to say that I in any way agree with Risen’s characterization of the emergence of 750 ml bottlings of beer as being part of “what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer” – really? By whom, exactly? – but rather that I see no reason to discriminate against beer simply because you can still buy a twelve-pack of Bud Light for ten bucks.

And as for those individuals interviewed by Risen who suggest that they recoil at the notion of sharing their big bottle of beer with anyone else, I have but one piece of advice: Grow up!

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