Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

The GBH 2015 New Year's Resolutions for Craft Beer

This has been GBH's biggest year ever with new projects, new partners, and new clients coming on-board faster than we can drink a beer with (almost). So we look forward to taking a step back and reflecting. But more importantly, we like to squint into the shiny glow of the new year, and see what we can see. These are the things we'd like to be better at ourselves in 2015, and a few things that we think we'd all be better off abiding by.  

Watch your language
Does the word farmhouse, rustic, saison, artisanal, or even “craft” have meaning anymore? Probably not in any specific, meaningful way — but like any industry jargon, they’ll always have meaning between people who use them consistently. For the rest of us, it’s inevitable that these words, and many more we once held dear, will continue to lose their meaning as they become co-opted, blurred and bastardized in an effort to describe the widening scope of what beer is to us. And that’s just how language works. The more words get used, the less meaning they hold, and the more we have to rely on context and qualification in order to explain our meaning. There will be sticklers who won’t let you off the hook (“hey man, that’s not a Lambic”) and there will be those who welcome your flawed vocabulary as a way of triangulating what kind of beer you’re looking to order (“Saison eh? So you want something kinda funky and tart or a little sweet and musty?”) but in the end, language is what we all make of it. So maybe don’t try and regulate the vocabulary of others (that’s a little annoying) but rather, try to be more thoughtful and illustrative with your own. 

Besides, if words never lost their meaning, we wouldn’t feel the compulsion to create or utilize new words — and what’s the fun in that? We're in uncharted territory with new beer styles and methods, creating beers driven by non-traditional ingredients, unique flavors and aromas, and crossovers between wine, cider, booze and beer. Even barrels are changing the way we talk about beer. If you’re lucky enough to get ahold of some barrels in 2015 (most likely, you aren’t) you probably can’t just say barrel-aged anymore and expect it to mean something. GBH’s East Coast collaborator, Cory Smith, is experiencing a world he never thought possible among barrel-aged beer drinkers: "we've reached a point where designating a beer as barrel-aged is only the beginning of the conversation. What type of barrel was it in, rum, bourbon or whiskey? What brand of bourbon? How long? Red or white wine barrel? If so, what varietal? We saw the rise of "double barrel" brews. Does that mean 2015 is triple barrel, quadruple barrel? Where, if at all, does it end?” 

Yeah, you can’t control the language of beer. If you’re the BJCP, who creates the most prolific style guidelines used for competitions, you can only hope to contain it. Now, who wants a Lichtenainer?

Production value should be a value we hold dear
There are more small breweries and craft beer drinkers than ever before, and that means that any weekend of the year, chances are you can hit up a major event, festival, or excursion at your convenience. So what makes one experience stand apart from all the others? Production value. No, a beer event doesn’t have to be high-end to be memorable, but it can’t be tossed together and make 500, 1,000, or 10,000 people happy. 

Beer events are where we welcome the widest cross-section of potential customers. And it’s up to us to provide them with the best experience possible. That means planning, trouble-shooting, and reflection on top of the hustle and hard-work we already put in to these events. Because the downside of a poorly run event with long lines, limited access to food, water, and facilities isn’t just a bummed out customer — it’s a sore spot for your brand, your partners, and the industry at large. If we’re trying to grow a segment of beer based on the the values of local, personal, artful, and consideration, then we can’t stop at the glass. Our job is to be a great host for beer experiences as well — especially when you’re charging for a ticket to an event where those expectations are more than reasonable. 

Many brewers think attracting mainstream audiences somehow means having to lower their standards. Bullshit. If you want to attract bigger audiences, you'll have to look past the applause of your closest and most loyal fans, and actually work for it. Mainstream audiences, and women in general, demand more, not less, from food and drink experiences. Here's a great conversation about what it takes. 

Control the value chain (at least a little)
Bottle releases are getting gamed. There are organized trading groups trying to beat the crowds, and the grey market is flush with scalped rarities purchased for half the price just down the street from you. If you’re a small producer and you’re making a limited edition beer, you have two ways to measure success: 1) Did you sell every bottle on release day? 2) Are your most meaningful customers get access to your best stuff? 

Sure, selling every bottle in a single day is efficient, feels amazing, and funds your brewery’s short-term growth, but chances are, the people hoarding, trading, or otherwise exploiting your product’s availability are not actually contributing the most to your future. They tend not to be loyalists or everyday customers. Meanwhile, your best customers aren’t getting a chance to join you on your most ambitious journeys as a brewer because they consistently get shut out. This is clearly a market that’s creating it’s own conditions, but if you as a producer want to make an effort toward the long-term value of your business through meaningful connections with your customers, you have an extra job to do and you might have to get creative. Find a way to measure your success in something other than the length of your line, and put yourself back in control of your brand and product experience. 

In the end, this is beer we’re talking about — but GBH’s Cory Smith is starting to see this hoarding and collecting behavior it in a disturbing light: “Collecting is a slippery slope and it seems that a lot of people are obtaining bottles simply to say they have it. I'm starting to see a lot of similarities between craft beer and Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies, and Star Wars paraphernalia.” 

Oh, sorry, did you think you were some sort of high-end wine collector? Awkward.

Skip “local” beer, drink native
The push for drinking local is an admirable one. For too long, this country has lacked a local connection to its beer and ingredients. That’s changing quickly as beer production seems to fill every empty warehouse in the county, and even the cultivation of hops and grains spreads (although it’s unclear if that has any real sustaining opportunity so far). And the access to local beer has a funny affect on consumers perceptions of what's in the glass— in short, they actually start to think of beer as a locally produced product like they think of their farmer or cheesemaker. Oops. 

Beer might be a locally manufactured product, but its ingredients are far from it. It’s more akin to an iPhone ("Designed in California") or locally roasted coffee — those beans come from Africa or South America. And when the focus is on the source of the ingredients consumers tend to value quality above all else, and “local” becomes a discussion about access, or convenience, or freshness, but not origination. And that little bit of disambiguation should free you up to pursue the best beer you can get your hands on, regardless of where you want it to come from.

But where the concept of “local beer” really starts to have meaning is when we’re talking about a certain nativeness. Beer was once ancestral — it came from a people and their place. Sure, Germans drank pilsner in Pilsen (duh), but not just because it was just “local” in the sense of convenience, but because where it came from had an influence on the beer itself. The water quality and mineral contents pushed recipe development in a particular direction, the hops were cultivated and sourced regionally to support those recipes, and people developed a taste for their local beer. They weren't just asking for a locally made IPA that mimicked something from another region — they wanted their own. 

The ingredients that drove the design of appellation beers (as they’re known) in antiquity aren’t really relevant in the same way today. Most water (even at Pilsner Urquell) is RO filtered and re-mineralized to match a desired profile, most hops are sourced from massive lots in the far Northwest or Europe still. In short, appellation beers have become reproducible styles, capable of being replicated anywhere on the planet. But there are many other ways that beers can derive a local, or native quality. Climate has a sincere affect on barrel-aging processes, for example, and Goose Island’s process for making Bourbon County Stout takes advantage of the expansion and contraction of the barrels throughout the year. Microflora and wild yeast is a key component of many wild ales, sours, ciders, and even some wines, and we’re only beginning to develop some real science around particular regions and breweries that consistently produce these kinds of beers. Not only can these beers not be replicated halfway around the world, they can’t be replicated down the street. 

So if you want to support a local business by drinking the beer they manufacture in New York City from German malts and Yakima hops, that’s great. I hope it’s super good. But if you want to really drink local in a way that’s more than just creating a micro-economy with your weekly beer budget, then consider the source. Personally, I prefer my Saisons to come from Belgium and France, my West Coast IPAs from California, and my bourbon-barrel-aged stouts from the Midwest. If you don’t want your local "saison" to be compared to Saison DuPont, then make something different, entirely of your own. 

Hats off to anyone giving these styles a run for their money in their local brewery — my skepticism will be healthy, my options plentiful, and my appreciation sincere if you pull it off. 

Europe's Freaky Friday problem and the rise of the boot
European breweries are sending us IPAs. Let that sink in for moment. While American brewers are hustling to replace the humble lager, saisons, belgians, and sours inspired by the old country with Americanized versions, newer European producers are brewing and exporting west-coast-style IPAs to the states. It’s mind-bending. This bizarre behavior is partly inspired by the massive influence that American brewing has had on the world in the last twenty years — seriously, American brewing is one of our biggest culture exports. And it’s partly caused by our willingness to buy anything with the letters I, P, and A on it. We remain obsessed. 

I saw this phenomenon myself in the Czech Republic of all places as I wandered the Zatec Harvest Festival, working my way through one amazing pale lager after another only to hit a record-scratch stop in front of some young Czech guys trying to pitch a noble hop IPA. Combining their experience producing noble-hop pale lagers with recipe information gleaned online, and what’s likely to be a fading memory of a visit to California, these guys, and many others at the fest, were producing some of the most truly fucked up IPAs I’ve ever tasted. But I suppose this is what you get when you try to make a beer style you don’t have ready access to for comparison. Any IPAs these guys have at home are likely months old and half-baked. 

On the contrary, GBH’s European collaborator, Tobias Göth, sees another side of European brewing coming to the forefront. "Germany is slowly rediscovering its historic treasures in Gose, Alt, Kölsch and Dortmunder, while the eastern countries of Poland and The Czech Republic are digging out old recipes for Grätzers,” says Göth. “And then there’s Italy's Craft Beer Awakening. While the UK is perhaps mimicking what US craft has already done, the Italian craft beer scene's crazy. With 400 craft breweries and counting this food-oriented nation is creating its very own niche with style-challeging sours as the boot of Europe emerges. Baladin's been around for ages, now look for names like El Borgo, BrewFist, Del Ducato, LoverBeer, and Grado Plato."  

Indeed, the context within which Italian beers are being made will prove fundamental to its uniqueness. Italy doesn’t need an IPA. They want beers that pair with some of the world’s best and oldest cuisines, a Mediterranean climate, and a lifestyle that we fly halfway around the world to soak in each year. 

Beers are memes too
We saw something truly remarkable happen in the last couple years in the form of an unknown German style — the lowly Gose. This salty, funky, tart beer from German antiquity was by all means extinct. And somehow a dozen brewers in the US independently thought they were bringing it back all by themselves. Across the US, small producers like Off Color and Westbrook (as early as 2012), and even some larger breweries like Anderson Valley, all seemed to bring a Gose to market in a similar timeframe. How is this possible? Because internet. 

GBH’s Midwest collaborator, Kyle Kastranec was dizzied by the exposure that some beer memes got this year. "If you would've told me this time last year that the hottest trend in 2014 would be sours — specifically goses — I would've called you crazy. More interesting to me is that it wasn't just hardcore beer nerds drinking them. There was a definite "embrace the weird" trend this year, especially amongst relative newbies, who were willing to try very new things based only on the suggestions of friends or bartenders."

Ideas for new beers are coming from all directions as consumers are able to share their niche finds more readily over Twitter, Untappd, and forums. Brewers uses these tools too, some on a daily basis. The result is a sort of shared un-conscience among beer drinkers and brewers as to what the next cool beer might be. And with a market as fickle as craft beer is, everyone is losing sleep at night trying to stay ahead of the curve. We’re going to continue seeing beer moving at the speed of the internet as new styles and ingredients pop-up seemingly overnight. But we’re also probably going to see some brewers pull the plug and get more secretive with their inspiration. Its not fun to be first with a new idea, only to find that you’ve accidentally become a fast follower instead. 

Beware the jack of all trades
Most brewers make great beer because they’ve spent a life-time honing their craft, learning from countless experiments, and developing relationships that keep them in a constant state of inspiration and education. For many brewers, that trajectory is taking them beyond the beer category altogether into spirits and ciders. This year, we’re going to see a huge amount of these products from craft breweries, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. 

First, let me point out that there are some amazing exceptions that prove the rule. Breweries like Ballast Point make some of the best distilled spirits on the market — period. They don’t just make an indie version of a vodka, or a small-batch rum, or whatever other gimmicky marketing spin you usually see from start-up distillers glomming on to the craft consumers’ preferences for small and local. Ballast Point is fundamentally better than most of the spirits on the market — and they’re a world-class brewer. So yes, this is possible. But I’d argue that Ballast Point is in a league of its own already —  they’re hardly an example of what’s likely in either industry, let alone two discreet industries being occupied at the same time. 

Rather, what we’re likely to get are breweries that want to produce a simple semi-sweet American hard cider, mostly from food apples (McIntosh, for example) or pressed juice (I mean, just make your own at this point), pitched with champagne yeast if we’re lucky, but mostly likely an ale yeast to keep things simple, and canned. This is a sizable, incremental business opportunity for most of these brewers. And it’s likely to get popular enough that it’ll actually stifle the development of the real cider craft that’s only just re-emerging in America. We don’t need more Woodchuck, Smith & Forge, or Stella Cidres on the market. And we certainly don’t need it coming from our craft brewers, carrying with it all the expected authenticity, passion, and artistry that it will not have. 

Cider production in the US should instead be heading in the direction of natural fermentation, estate-grown apples, and drier flavors. This is where the most advanced cider makers are pushing their craft, and craft brewers could unwittingly undercut that by trying to increase their market through non-beer products when they aren’t equipped or motivated to be good stewards of the category.  

On the spirits side, we’ve seen a year full of lawsuits against brands like Tito’s Handmade Vodka (for not being handmade at all) and Templeton Rye’s pre-prohibition whiskey recipe (that’s made and flavored from base whiskeys made in a factory in Indiana). The small-batch, craft distilling industry is hurting itself with these false claims, eroding consumer confidence, and generally suffering from a lack of patience. To make good brown takes time and investment, neither of which most start-ups have. So if dedicated craft distillers are struggling to aim true, what are we to expect from brewers who are taking it on as a side project? Not much, in my estimation. But I hope I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll wait for Tate & Company.

There’s no free lunch for growing breweries. 
Many of our mid-sized breweries are taking huge gambles in order to grow and position themselves for long-term gain. Breweries like Ballast Point and Surly are opening massive new production facilities, Stone and Lagunitas are building a national infrastructure, and even small breweries like Solemn Oath are doubling in size in order to stay ahead of market factors that could stop them in their tracks if they’re not aiming high enough.

In order to finance this kind of growth, brewers weigh many different options, from Indie-go-go campaigns (I still don’t get it), to private equity, to government grants and loans, to acquisitions. There’s no one way to secure your future, and anyone who thinks any of these methods are spiritually unsound for the craft beer industry simply doesn’t have the historical knowledge to make that claim — not yet anyhow — or the intimate knowledge of an individual owners' motivations. Not all brewery owners are created equal, or more importantly, alike. 

Personally, I’m a big fan of moves like Green Flash buying Alpine (I was there the day it happened), which we predicted in concept back in August on the podcast. Craft breweries buying up other craft breweries is a great way to align goals and leverage resources, distribution, and talents. And it’s much more likely to keep the original intent in tact, if that’s the goal, rather than simply folding into a portfolio as a homeless brand like it could with larger corporate brewers. Independent ventures, like the project started by Flying Dog this year also has some promise, as a second wave brewery started in 1991 outlines plans to fund a separate “Farm Brewery” 17 miles away on Shadow Farm. 

Many brewers will make mistakes in the way they fund their growth — just like any other business that gets out over its skis. And we can all sit in judgement of them for it, learn from it, or lament their loss. But failure, whether due to bad beer, or bad business, is a good thing in the long-run. The most creative, smart, and talented breweries will flourish. 

2015 will inevitably be a year with more breweries, more drinkers, and more money in the market than every before. And that’s likely to concentrate power, create serious competition, and undercut the passions that drive major development in the market. But I couldn’t be more excited. When a market heats up, it means there’s more churn than ever with new players entering and exiting, and new inspiration and opportunities for those that are paying close attention. 

I’m also excited to see last years' gambles pay off for many, as they successfully exploit their self-defined niches and start the long, hard journey toward growth (in whatever way they define it). 

Access to market for new brewers and access to world-class beers for consumers has never been better than it will be this year. And we all have each other to thank for it. 


Words + photos by Michael Kiser