Anyone familiar with the beer industry has a working knowledge of the three tier system — the laws meant to separate producers from distributors from retail and pub accounts. It’s how a keg of Snaggletooth Bandana gets from the brewery, onto a Windy City truck, warehoused and ultimately delivered to Small Bar Division. It’s been this way for a long time now.
As more nanobreweries come online, we’re all getting a bit more familiar with newer self-distribution laws, by which a brewer producing a marginal amount of beer can directly deliver their product to accounts of their choosing. It’s a way to give the little guys a boost to spark growth without burdening them with a middle man.
But few people are aware of the importer's role in this whole process. When it comes to specialty imports from Europe, the three tier system is a bit more like a 3.5 tier, with companies like Artisanal imports representing breweries in our local markets and working with local distributors to get the product, and its story, into the right hands. Rarely, or never, do distributors do the importing themselves. And the role of the importer, sometimes known as brokers, isn't necessarily to handle local logistics or roll trucks — instead, they’re considered the brand ambassador for a brewer who’s toiling away on his ales half a world away.
Artisanal has two warehouses, one on the east coast where the containers arrive. It takes about a week to cross the ocean before the beer is marked for delivery to one distributor or another across the country. And there's one in San Diego from which they serve the west coast markets.
"I'm very proud of my role with these breweries. Imagine if you brew a beer, and you flew 5,000 miles and you saw someone drinking it at a cafe. It's gotta just put something amazing in their souls to see that. They see that and think "That's my beer!" I'm so happy to be able to spread that around. It's not enough to just stand around and watch it get onto the shelf. I wan't to be a part of the brewery itself. I immerse myself into these breweries."
Adam Schulte from Artisanal imports is one such ambassador, representing a number of breweries from Europe, and more recently South America, who entrust him with promoting their brand and telling their story. He travels the midwest continuously, organizing events and converting new accounts (in Chicago, he does this alongside Windy City Distribution). Adam, collaborating with Ben Iverson of Allagash Brewing in Maine, and Jake Williams of Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, NY, have partnered to create an experience for their customers that's a little "offshore" called The Craft Beer Boat. They bring some of their best products together under a single hull, and invite bar owners, restauranteurs, and the likes aboard to have a great time and taste their latest wares. It’s a hard job, but somebody, like Adam, has to do it.
They've been at it for awhile now, but on this week’s Craft Beer Boat, they’re be unveiling some stellar brews, some seasonal, some new to market, and some being released new to the world. To get a sense of what was in store for their guests, we got the crew together at the GBH studio for a preview tasting. I brought Gene's Sausage shop sandwiches, and we all settled in for some shore leave.
Jake from Sixpoint brought along Resin, The Crisp, and 3 Beans. Last year, Sixpoint stormed into the Chicago market. Amongst a cluttered market of new IPAs, Resin stood out with its distinctive skinny can, bold mark, and confirming quality in the beer. Coming in at 9.1%, this IPA falls clearly on the side of a double, and the balance between bitterness and the malt bill reflects that.
But while Resin continues to infiltrate markets, it's The Crisp that's quickly settling in as a midwestern favorite. Similar to a German Pilsner with all Noble hops, The Crisp leans slightly back towards a smoother ale by excluding the peppery Saaz hops varietal so common in Czech. The recipe has shifted a bit, in a way that Jake might only notice being so familiar with the brand.
"Our Master Brewer, Jahn, is from Munich and studied at Weihenstephaner. He came in about three years ago and started fine-tuning our recipes. But it's still an American take on a pilsner. And it's our biggest seller in Chicago right now. A lot of people told us that Chicago wouldn't want a lager, but look at what somebody like Metropolitan has been doing."
Last up from Sixpoint was 3 Beans. Right around the corner from the Brooklyn-based brewery is a Stumptown coffee roaster (originally out of Portland, Oregon), and the pair wasted little time in getting some of Stumptown's famous roast into a Sixpoint beer. According to Jake, despite their ambitions to make a coffee brew, this recipe almost didn't make it.
"As we were making the test batches, Hurricane Sandy came through New York. One of the sample kegs was open on the top, basically being used as a carboy, when about six feet of water came into the brewery. There was a salt line on the walls afterwards where you could see how high the water got. The keg was fermenting the whole time, and it floated up, and then sat right back down perfectly. Finally the water clears up. But we couldn't brew for a month and a half during clean up. It was devastating. So they get everyone together and decide to put this out as a big "fuck you" to Hurricane Sandy."
It's a big beer. 10.5% abv, with a robust, but smooth, coffee nose. Chocolate was added during the mashing, and oak chips during the boil, but the coffee was added later in post-fermentation. Stumptown wanted to do a cold brew to avoid the astringency that comes from adding grounds or a hot press. So balanced in these flavors, some people are convinced they can only taste one or the other, but almost no one agrees on which one. Bullseye.
Adam of Artisanal Imports brought a wide range of products, including Aspal Cider, St. Feuillien Saison, and the toast of the day, Seef Beer.
St. Feuillien is a Belgian in a can from one of the most traditional breweries in the world. The abbey walls still exist, but it burned down in the 1800s. Now brewed just outside the walls, they traditionally make bottle conditioned Belgians. But focused on selling more saison and getting it into the hands of more American customers, they broke with strong Belgian traditions and re-imagined their offering through an American lens. Because they can't bottle condition a can, they force carbonate it, increase the hopping rates, and then dryhop the beer. The result is a saison with incredible aromatics that really leaps into your nose and palate. It's like wearing a feedbag full of hops cones and spices.
Seef (pronounced "safe" beer) has an incredible history. And Adam tells it so well.
"Seef Beer was really the beer in Antwerp for about 130 years, from about 1800 to 1930. There's actually a neighborhood in Antwerp called Seef because it was so loved. It's been referred to as the ""poor man's champagne." The wars destroyed a lot of breweries around Antwerp, and a lot of them were brewing Seef at the time. It was a family name. The recipes were lost, basically extinct. For about 80 years, until Johann VanDyck, the marketing manager for Duvel, reads about Seef in a book and falls in love with the idea of recreating the beer. He asks Duvel to start a side project to recreate it and they say "no." So he quits and starts Antwerp Brouwerij and starts seeking out people who used to work at the Seef brewery, or their family members, basically going door to door, and finally after two years meets a woman whose grandfather brewed Seef back in the 20s. And he had a shoe box with recipe in it, not detailed though, it just sort of explained what the beer tasted like with some proportions. He knew it was made with wheat, oats, and barley and those were listed. It was a very special kind of yeast with a lot of carbonation. He started to recreate the beer and got excited. He went to a world renowned brewing school in German and they helped him recreate it with a yeast strain they found in a yeast bank in Antwerp. A really, really old strain. We released it last April in Antwerp and it just exploded. We sold more Seef beer in bottles, no draft yet, just in the city of Antwerp than we sell Tripel Karmeliet in the entire United States in just four months."
A Hefeweizen with brettanomyces, Seef beer is meant to have a dry, champagne like finish, with a slight tartness and a frothy mouthfeel. My closest comparison is Green Flash's Rayon Vert (perhaps my favorite beer this year), but Seef also has an orange zest aroma that hints at it's sessionable role in German drinking culture despite being 6.5% abv. On the boat, Seef will be on draft for the first time as it launches into the Chicago market.
One rule in life, is that if you must come late, come heavy. Ben Iversen, formerly of Windy City, now represents Allagash Brewery from Maine. And he clearly intended to erase his tardiness from our memories by bringing one of the most sought-after beers in the US — Allagash Confluence.
Allagash makes a few beers with their house yeast and brettanomyces strains, and Confluence is the funkiest. Dryhopped with Glacier hops in the finish, Ben describes the core of the recipe as a Belgian Golden, or a Belgian pale. It has a slightly fruity, grape-must aroma from the two-month aging process with the brett in stainless tanks. And despite the horse-blanket quality of the beer, it remains light and airy, more than most, and comes in at 7.4%.
Allagash has been in the Chicago market for some time now, with Allagash White leading the way and financing many of the other projects back home, including the new dedicated "wild room" and coolship, a process by which ambient temperatures cool the wort overnight and let naturally occurring yeast start the fermentation process. More recently, we've seen Allagash Black enter the market, a coffee and dark chocolate stout that serves as a counterpoint to the Belgian white. After some scaling back in larger markets, Chicago is finally getting a taste of some of the more ambitious recipes from Maine, and Confluence is one of the most highly anticipated.
This was an incredible preview of what these three guys are doing to introduce Chicago to great beers new and old. The full menu on The Craft Beer Boat includes many other brews, like Aspall Dry Cider (pictured above), Allagash Cerieux, and some Sweet Action from Sixpoint. The full menu and more information can be found on the boat's Facebook page. Give them a follow, and watch for your opportunity to come aboard.