These are the people and companies that did something special this year, making the beer industry better, more progressive, and a lot more fun. These are 2017's GBH Signifiers. We'll be adding a few more each day through the end of the year—27 in all!
While the agricultural side of hop production wrestles with both surplus and shortage, and works to preserve the future of disease-resistant strains favored by small brewers, another side of the hop industry is working to make process and technique an equally important factor in creating aromatic, flavorful hop-driven beers.
Yakima Chief - Hopunion LLC created two specific products this year, both of which garnered the attention and acclaim the industry. Cryo-hops, or lupulin powder, are a concentrated lupulin of whole-leaf hops containing resins and aromatic oils. Like the crush of a grain mill making the sugars in a malted grain more accessible and extractable, so does lupulin powder make the utilization rates and concentrates some of the aromatic and flavor compounds brewers are looking for, while marginalizing the ones they don’t want.
This new form of hop processing has fueled the rise of the Double Dry-Hopped (DDH) craze, and enabled brewers with limited access to hop contracts, especially for sought-after varieties, to obtain some of the net effects they’re looking to create for drinkers. As with any trend in beer, the speed of its spread is partially determined by the accessibility of the ingredients needed to obtain the results. All of which is to say: YCH helped pour gasoline on the fire of IPA’s already rapid evolution.
What was once seen as a band-aid for start-up brewers looking for access to canning equipment and the markets that canning enabled, is now a force of its own and looking more and more like a permanent solution as brewery models evolve.
This year, Iron Heart, led by CEO Tyler Wille, completed an acquisition of Toucan mobile canning, to piece together a footprint that includes more than 26 canning lines with more than 250 clients in 18 states with the addition of Toucan’s southern division. It’s a business concept that previously could not—and did not—exist prior to craft’s most recent expansion in the market with more than 6,000 breweries.
And while quantifiable metrics are indicative of an impressive business achievement, qualitative indicators are just as impressive. This year, Iron Heart won the business of Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Vermont, known as one of the most award-winning and sought-after breweries in the world. Prior to the arrangement, Hill Farmstead had only released their beers in keg, on-site for growler fills, and mostly large-format bottles, choosing to control as much of the access and drinking of its product as they could to ensure quality. As the consumer base for cans shifted, and the occasions for craft beer expanded, the brewery considered the painstaking decision to launch some of their beers into 12oz cans on-site, and partnered with Iron Heart to do so. It’s a sign that the quality of the mobile canning service has evolved into both an increasingly accessible and world-class offering—two factors that are typically at odds.
I’ve been writing about cider periodically every since my palate was dragged across the barriers that separate wine, cider, and beer in pursuit of fermentation qualities that are actually quite common among the three once you discover natural and wild fermentation. In that pursuit, some of the best I’ve ever had are from Oliver’s Cider and Perry in Herefordshire, England.
But to the point of this tip of the hat, it’s the effect the founder Tom Oliver has had on the beer world that I find most remarkable. At last year’s Beavertown Extravaganza, Oliver set up shop next to Other Half, siphoning off one drinker at a time waiting in line for their amazing IPAs.
Oliver also sat on a panel that weekend with Averie Swanson of Jester King, and Mark Tranter of Burning Sky Brewery to discuss the realities of terroir in both modern and natural cider making, providing a point of view from an orchardist the way a hop farmer, barley grower, or micro-malster might for brewers.
He also produced an exquisite collaboration beer this year, incorporating his perry with a wild ale brewer at Mills Brewing, taking a Lambic-style wort, aging it in cider barrels, and fermenting and aging it with active cider yeast (on lees). The results were spectacular. This year, he likewise made a lovely Saison and perry blend with Brew by Numbers.
As if to cap it all off, at the afterparty for the Beavertown Extravaganza, the room was full of tired brewers. Perhaps they were equally as tired of drinking wonderful beers all day, opting instead to dance and sing with a bottle of Oliver’s Gold Rush #5 in hand, a collaboration cider made with Ryan Burk in the U.S.
Oliver also rebranded this year, partnered with a new, ambitious distributor in London, and lent his voice in resistance to new, misguided legislation in the UK that would harm the category. He’s been busy as all hell.
I’d be hard pressed to name any cider maker who has made more of a case for naturally-fermented, orchard-based ciders amongst beer drinkers, while working to elevate his own category at the same time. Oliver is pulling more than his fair share of weight in both.
For the last few years, without fail, by the third session of the Shelton Brothers’ Festival, Frederiksdal cherry wine would be the talk of all the assembled brewery representatives. And then there was this year, where it was the talk of everyone.
Harald Krabbe somehow managed a seismic shift in the American market this year with his outstanding, genre-defining cherry wine. Maybe his success is due to the progression of wine in the market place in general. In 2017 especially, there seemed to be more talk of low-intervention wines of non-traditional origin with non-traditional organisms doing the fermentation.
As a result, wine drinkers are getting behind the formerly taboo presence of Brettanomyces in their glasses. Words like “funky” and “esoteric” are now desirable, and through all this Krabbe has found himself dead center in this movement precisely because he’s crafted something that is just that. Funky, unorthodox, beautiful, and downright delicious, it’s no surprise the cherry wine has made a strong push this year. A snapshot of proof? There are now Demijohns sitting on bar tops across America filled with his wine. Another sign of Krabbe’s influence? Some of craft's best breweries have used his fruit—Side Project—and barrels—The Veil—for their beers.
After a conversation at Shelton Fest, I’m led to believe the horizon is even more exciting than where we are now. Harald told us of making wines from many fruits, trying myriad cherry varietals on his farm, and expanding all that he can offer. I, for one, can’t wait to see what we’re all talking about at The Festival next year.
Allagash Brewing Co. isn’t the largest craft brewer in the country, but it certainly brews a significant amount of beer—around 100,000 barrels in 2017. And in order to make all that beer, they have to purchase a whole bunch of malt—around 5,000,000 pounds for 2017’s production. Although Maine—where the iconic brewery has called home since Rob Tod founded the company in 1995—has an ideal climate for growing barley malt for brewing purposes, the farm systems and infrastructure simply isn’t there to meet this kind of demand.
Allagash already uses Maine-grown malt in some of its products, including Sixteen Counties, a beer that brewmaster Jason Perkins produces uses all Maine-grown and Maine-sourced ingredients highlighting the sixteen counties in the state, malt included amongst them. Allagash estimates that it used 115,000 pounds of Maine-grown malt in 2017. Even if Perkins wanted to use more locally grown malt in his recipes, there just isn’t enough available. That’s why his and Allagash’s commitment to use 1,000,000 pounds of Maine grown malt by 2021 is so impactful for Maine’s barley farmers. Unlike a commitment to use a certain percentage of malt grown in Maine, the 1,000,000 pound number is a tangible goal for farmers’ production—if they can grow it, Allagash will use it.
Allagash is reinvesting in its home state—indeed, the farmers, and malt producers here—to brew a beer that is locally relevant, and ideally more flavorful thanks to a higher quality, locally grown malt. The small farms that Allagash will partner with will make a huge economic impact throughout the state in rural Maine. It’s just one more way Allagash continues to be a role model when it comes to sustainability and responsibility for Maine’s increasing number of brewers.
One of the most memorable brewery tours I’ve ever been on was the time Peter Bouckaert showed Creature Comforts around New Belgium. Peter’s calm, quiet demeanor can easily hide the fact that he is almost always the smartest guy in the room. And for three hours, he showed us around every department, answered every question with data and scientific evidence, and never showed distress—no matter how much we pressed into our inquisition. He’s a brewmaster in the truest sense of the word.
So, where do you go when you’re seemingly at the top? You go to your happy place. You find a renewed sense of Purpose.
When Peter announced Purpose Brewing and Cellars, I caught myself nodding in awe. He’s a Signifier to me this year because he’s showing all of us that, regardless of profession, it’s never too late to chase your dreams. It’s never too late to keep growing.
The future of the brewing industry is going to be interesting. In the years ahead, it will become rarer for homebrewers to start up breweries. It’ll become more common for seasoned professionals to start their own ventures. We’re already seeing that trend start to take off. Who knows where beer styles will go, or how the dynamics of the large vs. small breweries will shake out for the consumer. But Peter has shown us that you can be a multi-continent industry pioneer and still find a new frontier.
For far too long, America’s smallest brewers have depended on the funding and interests of the world’s largest brewing conglomerates to push brewing agriculture ahead. Not that it’s been all bad—not even close. Because of ongoing investment in education, technology, and trial from multinationals like AB InBev and SABMiller, there’s never been a better time for the agriculture of brewing in terms of efficiencies, disease resistance, and knowledge-sharing. But as a competitive market starts to create pressure for differentiation, new priorities are emerging—small brewers want distinctiveness in their agriculture and, increasingly, they want it closer to home.
This year, the Brewers Association and a team including Supply Chain Specialist Chris Swersey, embarked on a massive investment in a public program for hop development to the tune of $575,000. This program aims to research and develop publicly available hop strains that better align with the interests of brewers in the BA, namely small and independent brewers who rely on distinctiveness in the end product as much, or more than, the commodity economics of the ingredient.
The federal government itself is providing $700,000 towards salaries, benefits, equipment maintenance, and more related to hop research. Together, the funds will be enough to provide for a full-time USDA project lead to focus on hop breeding, with potential for a second staff member to focus on genetics.
The results could help craft brewers, as well as home brewers (and even ABI), for generations to come.
Suarez Family Brewery started strong. Two thousand sixteen was an impressive opening year for the small, family-run beer maker in upstate New York. But the buzz around the Suarez team is a little different.
It’s a little hard for me to remove myself from the situation, given that I work in a brewery every day, but the talk surrounding Suarez is somehow more pure than the normal good word on the street. The narrative includes how beautiful the foam on the beer is, how soft the Lagers are, how well-integrated the botanicals are in those beautiful country beers, and how pleasant it is to be in Dan and Taylor Suarez’s tasting room. (It really is pleasant, too.) It’s not about how many dry hops they do, how strong the beer is, how many adjuncts are in the Stout, or how “sour” the beer is. What Dan is bringing back to the beer world is an honest true north for many brewers—myself included.
There are different ways to define success in beer. Sometimes it’s monetary. It can be selling a couple pallets of Double IPA in a few hours. Maybe you’re concerned with winning awards or being written about in “best of” lists. But one of the successes that rings most true to me is the applause of your peers. Dan makes the beers we all want to drink. He makes the beers we all want to make. Lucky for us brewers, we’re not alone in our desires.
There is a growing number of consumers that are also looking for exactly what he’s doing. In 2017, he showed us more country beers, started putting fantastic Lagers in tallboy cans, and consistently made the rest of the game salivate. I’m already looking forward to 2018 because I know at some point, I’m going to find myself back at this quaint brewery in Livingston, New York shaking my head in admiration at those the “crispy little beers.” Maybe the tacos will be ready by then.
During a visit to Garage Project’s Wild Workshop, in Wellington, New Zealand, co-founder Jos Ruffell hands me a glass filled with a pale liquid, poured from an adjacent steel tank.
I take a sip. “That’s not beer!” I exclaim.
With a knowing smile, Ruffell reveals to me that what’s in my glass is, in fact, 100% Brett-fermented New Zealand Chardonnay. It would go on to become one of four natural-inspired wines in Garage Project’s new Crushed portfolio.
The wine industry is a pretty big deal in New Zealand. Its exports alone bring in more than $1 billion to the country’s economy. With a growing interest in naturally fermented products like wine and cider from a maturing beer community, Garage Project is leading beer enthusiasts by the hand as they continue to explore the world of the fermented.
New Zealand’s beer market is also very small, with a population of just 4.7 million spread between its two islands, which are roughly equal in size to California. For Garage Project, growing sideways into the natural wine market is of not only a way of boosting its brand in its home market, but also overseas—with a product that will travel far better than its pale, hoppy offerings, no less.
As a traveling ambassador for his brand, Ruffell has ensured that plenty of people have been talking about Garage Project’s beers in 2017. With its new range of wines, he’ll ensure the conversation about his brewery will continue into the new year, and reach many more ears as it does so.
Pubs were always meant to be gathering places for the community. And in the wake of massive fires that torched more than 110,000 acres across California’s North Bay Area, the displaced and distressed took to these harbors, where they could listen to the radio, process, and recoup.
In the first days after flames took hold, Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa was among the first businesses to reopen their doors to locals. They barely had the staff available, but they had a kitchen, water, and power. Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, home a mere hours from GABF before sparks broke out, took a skeleton crew to the brewpub and “gave away the store” while serving food and beer to the community, first responders, and volunteers taking a break from shuttling supplies to shelters. But as news of widespread damage rolled in, the Cilurzos decided to do more.
In just a day or two, they put together a two-pronged plan. The first part was a raffle with a prize that for years they swore to each other they “would never, ever” offer: 14 pairs of tickets to cut the hours-long line to get Pliny the Younger at its annual February release. Raffle tickets sold out in less than three weeks.
So they kept working on the second, much trickier, part of the plan: Collect and distribute massive amounts of donated malts and hops to brewers with whom they were friendly, starting with the nearby Bear Republic. These brewers were tasked with crafting and selling their beer of choice under Russian River’s licensed-out “Sonoma Pride” label, and then asked to donate the proceeds to the nonprofit King Ridge Foundation, which aids at-risk Sonoma County locals who have been affected or displaced by the fires.
The thing is, Vinnie and Natalie didn’t actually get to make many calls before breweries began reaching out to volunteer their time, leading the final roster of participants to include 60 or so breweries, some of which were as far off as Georgia (Creature Comforts), Florida (Cigar City), and London (Beavertown).
The Cilurzos’ efforts, aided by brewers and their goodwill, have now earned King Ridge more than half a million dollars (and counting). It’s going to be a long road to recovery for the region, but as Natalie says, with help from the community pitching in, “we are still going strong.”
As more and more beer drinkers continue down the path of maturity, folks are just starting to come around to a beer style that Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing Company has championed for years—”session beer.” A long-time advocate for the style, 2017 was a banner year for Lohring to carry the session torch.
From criticizing the Brewers Association for awarding a beer outside of the session beer ABV style guidelines, to challenging consumers’ ideas of what session beers can and should be, to putting his money where his mouth is and brewing one world-class low-ABV beer after another at his brewery in Salem, Massachusetts, no one was more vocal about session beer than this man. And even though it’s a style that remains relatively un-sexy, Lohring has been unwavering in his stance on the fact that session beer is real.
From the prominent placement of “Session Beer” on his branding, to the use of #sessionbeer on twitter and Instagram, to the service of beers by the ½ liter and full-liter glass in Notch’s taproom, to the triple decoction on a 10-plato Czech Pilsner, Lohring pretty much does it all. And his beers are executed perfectly, clean and crisp, and full of flavor. We have a feeling even more folks will be coming around to his mindset in 2018.
If you build it, they will come. The oft misquoted line from Field of Dreams sounds good in theory, but typically isn’t the case for breweries who are opening up or expanding in today’s evermore-crowded beer market. The decision to open or grow is often difficult, one that is wrought with the very real chance that it simply won’t work, won’t be sustainable. Or, worse: that people won’t show up for the beer.
With the near constant question about whether the NE IPA is a passing trend, the folks behind Tree House Brew Co., one of the the styles most well-known producers, doubled and tripled down on the style. With an estimated $18.5 million dollar expansion project now online in Charlton, Massachusetts, Nate, Lauren, Dean, and Damien have pushed the potential of Tree House and it’s NE IPAs to a whole new level. Massive, 60-barrel turns of NE IPA into 240-BBL tanks is practically unheard of and relatively huge in scale, especially when that beer all goes out the front door of the brewery, sold on-premise by the can.
And yet, so far, Tree House is making it work. They’re going big with NE IPA in a way that still rings true to what the brewery has always been. Beautiful packaging, friendly staff, a constant line out the door that—for better or worse—is almost just as big a part of the experience as the beer is itself. Tree House is pushing the limits of what the NE IPA brewery can be, and with the investment in the new brew house and packaging line, the beer should ostensibly be better than ever.
Since 2006, Mikkeller has been a craft beer pioneer, pushing the boundaries of what a beer maker can be in its 11 years, from an international beer cafe network to a run club. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Danish brewery is yet again stretching sideways, as Jacob Alsing described in his appearance at the Beavertown Extravaganza Symposium hosted by GBH.
Last year’s WarPigs launch provided Mikkeller the chance to collaborate with Indiana-based 3 Floyds Brewpub while serving up fresh beer and BBQ for those in Denmark and abroad. And this year they took that collaboration brand back to the U.S. with contracts to brew it at Great Central in Chicago and Wisconsin Brewing in Verona, giving the brand an unlikely life of its own.
July also brought the announcement that Mikkeller would be joining the traditionally macro beer-dominated world of baseball with the opening of a brewpub inside Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Led by Jim Raras, the space will be open year-round, and the 10,000-square-foot brewhouse will serve as a home base from which Mikkeller can extend its reach to non-craft drinkers. And while a bit of a curveball to industry-watchers (ourselves included) it fits with Mikkeller’s opportunistic, just-have-fun-with-it style of growth and new audience attraction.
Increasingly known for their ambitions in the festival and experience aspects of beer, Mikkeller opened a beer garden during the annual Boston Calling music festival and, in August, hosted Haven Festival, their own Copenhagen-based music celebration. In September, Mikkeller returned to the States to host the Copenhagen Beer & Music Festival...in Boston, further cementing their position as a foreign invader we seem to welcome with open arms in our otherwise local-first culture.
“Just expose non-craft-beer drinkers to craft beer,” Mikkel told GBH in July. “That’s pretty much what we’re working on at the moment.”
For an industry debating how to attract new consumers, Mikkeller’s refreshing philosophy seems to be: don’t worry about it, we’ll come to you. And these days, it’s people like Alsing and Raras, along with a supporting cast of ambitious team members, that Mikkel is knighting in his quest to get it all done.
The prevailing themes of 2017 run parallel to Julie Verratti's own arc.
On a national stage, conversations of politics and equality have held strong since the inauguration of Donald Trump almost a year ago. In her home state of Maryland, those conversations have been paired with issues of beer and tax reform, creating its own microcosm of the world at-large. Among the middle of it all has been the political-organizer-turned co-owner of Maryland's Denizens Brewing Co., putting Verratti’s past and present experience to good use.
When I sat down with Verratti and brewer Jeff Ramirez this summer to record an episode of the Good Beer Hunting podcast, it wasn't long before she had been named to the Brewers Association's Diversity Committee. In the fall, Verratti joined Maryland's Reform on Tap task force to help modernize the state's laws. In November, she was elected to the Brewers Association's Board of Directors.
No matter the topic du jour, Verratti has seemed to find a place amongst it all in the past year, and deservedly so. A passion for her hometown, coupled with belief in Maryland's acceptance of the LGBTQ community, led to the creation of Denizens in Silver Spring, where it's become a community hotspot. Her commitment toward respect and inclusion has similarly made her a rising star with a newly national stage. With growing responsibility within the craft beer industry’s representative trade organization, Verratti now provides a distinct and enthusiastic voice for small business owners and diversity at a moment in time when the Brewers Association places a premium on both those things.
Most of all, she's a loving person. She cares about her home, family, friends, and how beer can bring that all together for a greater good. With as much turmoil as we see on a daily basis, that's something we could really use right now.
The beer community may arguably be as tight-knit and clique-y as ever, but there’s no denying the fact that, as more and more breweries are opening up all over the globe, it’s an increasingly geographically widespread one as well. To stay actively and presently involved can be a challenge, one that is downright exhausting. Participating in events all over the world is no small task. It’s an undertaking that requires dedication, planning, and a true belief that it’s all worth it.
Credit Paul Jones of Cloudwater Brew Co for hitting the global circuit this past year. He logged more than 60,000 travel miles in 2017, all in the name of Cloudwater beer. He bestowed a nearly universal relevance to Cloudwater in countless beer markets. He attended events in Europe and the United States to expose thirsty beer drinkers to his work. He visited countless breweries around the world to talk beer and the business of running a brewery. He collaborated, an exercise that not only develops relationships with other like-minded brewers, but serves as an avenue for bringing fresh beer directly to market. And he thoroughly exhausted me as I typed up this paragraph.
Expect even bigger things from Cloudwater next year, as Jones’ legwork in 2017 has set them up for exactly that. Lessons learned from time away from the brewery can be just as, if not more, impactful than time spent at home.
In this new age of corporate communications, we see everything from the tone-deaf “let’s all get along” attempts of the NFL to sassy Twitter personas like Moonpie. But rarely do we see an earnest attempt to start a conversation, especially from “big beer,” like we have with MillerCoors’ new Behind the Beer blog from writer Peter Frost.
Peter was the business and beer reporter for Crain’s Chicago, helping shine a light on the city’s growing craft beer niche for investors who were wondering, “What the hell is happening?” But he also uncovered what would become his biggest story to-date at the magazine, profiling the disturbing business practices of Phil Tadros, founder of Bow Truss Coffee and Aquanaut Brewing, among other businesses. For the investment and business audience of Crain’s, the question remained the same: “What the hell is happening?”
In 2017, Frost’s career shifted. He joined MillerCoors and quickly started utilizing the platform to give one of the biggest players in beer a unique voice in an industry where authenticity, vision, and passion are winning. Behind the Beer talks up the company’s successes, but it also questions the moves of its competitors (AB InBev goes on the record with Peter just like they always have), and dishes out some equal-opportunity jabs.
To give you an idea of the spread, this year alone, Frost...
• ...got the scoop on the potential Dilly Dilly labels for Bud Light before many employees in its own company were aware.
• ...wrote openly about the complexity of competing in spirits while also entering the category.
• ...and even took a moment to help the #TakeCraftBack campaign make a fool of itself.
Plenty of folks would be suspicious of a corporate writer using a platform like this to drive an agenda. But these agendas are self-evident and working in all directions when it comes to beer. I personally found it refreshing, informative, and entertaining to have one of the biggest players in the game hand the keys to a talented writer with a nose for the business, thus dramatically shortening the distance from corporate strategy to communications.
Oh, and they also want to kill the shaker pint! The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The craft beer sector has changed the way beer is bought and sold. From delivery services to own-premise, beer is becoming an in-demand product in an historically supply-driven industry—and it’s showing up in previously unimaginable places like stadiums, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Costco.
But as craft beer continues its push down-market to critical mass, people like Suzanne Schalow and Kate Baker of the Belmont, Massachusetts-based Craft Beer Cellar are proving that education, attention, and passion are still winning over people perpetually looking for their first and next great beer in a very personal way.
This year, the duo extended their retail philosophy across the U.S. in 2013 with the franchise model, popping up Craft Beer Cellars of all kinds from Vermont to California. It didn’t come without challenges, of course. But at the tail end of 2016 and spilling over into early 2017, it also came with some unexpected controversy. A memo leaked that showed examples of brands they didn’t want carried in the stores—and others they did—based on quality, which they expected their franchises to adhere to in an effort to ensure their stores remained at the forefront of specialty retail.
In an unlikely turn of events, Twitter erupted with complaints that anyone would dare draw a measure for quality in craft beer at the expense of local brands, claiming that consumers should decide instead. Despite Craft Beer Cellar’s origins as a personally-curated vision for beer, it was now forced to consider its role in an industry where a small set of vocal drinkers have the talking stick and franchises felt under pressure to carry in-demand local brands, no matter their quality concerns.
Despite that very public pushback, Schalow continued to call on the industry to consider quality first, and rather than abandon the premise because of its subjectivity, she asked for an ongoing dialogue that raises expectations across the board, even in her own stores. On our podcast interview with her in July, she didn’t back off, either. She spoke diplomatically at times, but she mostly doubled-down.
Why? She still remembers putting the sign on the door in Belmont back in 2010, taking a risk that anyone, anywhere, was going to care about the beers she wanted to sell. A local resident waiting for the bus saw the sign and yelled out curiously, “What’s craft beer!?” Her and Kate’s careers are the continuous pursuit of that answer.
In a year of seismic shifts for the UK beer industry, it’s a small story that sums it up best—Buxton head brewer Colin Stronge’s move to Leed’s Northern Monk.
It’s been a hell of a year for all three. Buxton—longtime “brewer’s brewery” of the UK—found critical acclaim for its part in brewing many of Omnipollo’s infamous Pastry Stouts, including a collaboration range of ice cream beers that were topped with slushy, biscuits, and marshmallows at IndyManBeerCon. Meanwhile, Northern Monk continued its journey from cuckoo brewers to household name by tripling their brewhouse to 30-BBLs, moving into tallboy cans, founding two festivals, and collaborating on beers with the likes of Other Half and Bissell Brothers.
In addition to switching jobs, Colin Stronge had his first child and suffered a horrific heat injury that left him in hospital getting skin grafts up to his knees just before the switch. And so he shed his skin literally and metaphorically, moving from the country to the big beer city of Leeds. Strong is one of the UK’s most multi-talented brewers. Buxton’s Omnipollo Stouts are completely at odds with their Real Ale roots, and the fact that Colin can make world-class versions of both forms speaks volumes to his talent. He’s the kind of guy most breweries would kill to have in their brewhouse: classical in approach but with a sense of humor and adventure to the beers he makes.
Northern Monk is a brewery brimming with ideas. Colin Stronge will make them reality.
Look past daily brewing schedules and obsessive compulsive—but necessary, mind you—stainless steel cleaning regimens, and there are still a variety of pressures thrust upon the people who make our beer.
Most notably, it comes from one of the industry’s most common adages, uttered by brewers all over: “I make what I like to drink.” The challenge of this statement is that these professionals aren’t actually making beer solely for themselves, but all the potential customers that might wander into a taproom or pause on eye-grabbing packaging in a beer aisle.
In 2017, Hollie Stephenson was thrust into two unique opportunities that, with no hyperbole, may only come around once in a lifetime for brewers. She left Stone Brewing in California for Asheville’s Highland Brewing in 2015, where she worked patiently, waiting to lead a reinvention of sorts, until this year when she helped reshape a 23-year old brewery’s lineup, modernizing and popularizing new beers from a company long known for its malt-forward, UK-inspired brands, setting a course for the brewery’s rebirth in one of the more competitive beer cities in the country. And then in August, she made the jump once again, to an even unliklier opportunity at Guinness’ new Maryland facility, where she now acts as the plant’s first head brewer, overseeing production at a $50 million site.
These kind of things don’t happen often, and they most certainly aren’t presented to just anyone. Stephenson’s knack for recipe development and interest in flavors that captivate beer’s young, influential customers has allowed her career to thrive in the past 12 months. She was once trusted to overhaul a regional brewery’s products. Now she’s part of braintrust leading the charge for a historic, international brand trying to make inroads in the most competitive beer market in the world. Pressures abound.
Whether we realized it or not at the time, Stephenson was among a roster of up-and-coming names to know at the start of the year. By the end, she had arrived.
There is nothing inherently "sexy" about being a brewer, and yet there are many who have transcended what tongue-in-cheek amounts to being a glorified janitor and yeast whisperer. The job requires so much more, but at its core, creating beer is about finding a connection to agriculture and steel, not the proverbial shaking hands and kissing babies of a public figure.
Yet there are plenty who are recognizable, like Sam Calagione, and others highly regarded by enthusiasts, like Cory King, but otherwise left in the dark of public knowledge. And still there's another tier revered by both: the brewer's brewer.
Phil Markowski is such a man. A brewer who started in 1989 and literally wrote the book on Farmhouse Ales, he’s been behind one of the faster growing businesses in 2017. He's a co-founder and the brewmaster at Stratford, Connecticut's Two Roads Brewing Co., which grew 31% in volume this past year. That jump in barrelage isn't just because the brewery added markets in Maryland, Delaware, DC and Northern Virginia, either. Pre-existing markets also grew by 29%.
Needless to say, people really like Markowski's beer. Half his time is spent on recipe development, taking sensory profiles dreamed up among coworkers and bringing them to fruition. In a year marked by increased attention for juicy and hazy hop bombs or Pastry Stouts, Markowski's skills continue to be remarkable for their top-to-bottom consistency and quality of creation. An unfiltered Pale Lager is a crisp delight next to a nuanced-yet-roasty Coffee Stout and a funky, barrel-aged Saison made with wild yeast. Markowski got extra room to play in 2017 with Two Road's Tanker Truck Series, a collection of fruited beers kettle-soured in a repurposed milk truck.
"To stay fresh you’ve got to remain nimble," Markowski says. "But above all, you’ve got to be good."
The Two Roads brewer continues to do just that. Perhaps a little off the radar of some "best beer" compilations or bottle share wish lists, but just as deserving of attention. Markowski's name might not be known by all, but it definitely deserves to be.
In July of 2017, Lost and Grounded turned one. Founded by duo Alex Troncoso—who previously brewed at Camden Brewery and Little Creatures—and Annie Clements, the Bristol-based brewery is a rare bird. For one, it eschews Pale Ales, IPAs, and DIPAs. Instead, its love affair with continental Europe shows, both in its kit (a 21-barrel Steinecker MicroCube system) and in its German- and Belgian-inspired lineup.
Take the flagship Keller Pils, which is made exclusively with German hops and marries beguiling crispness, bready malt, and gentle but persistent bitterness. The Lager—one of two that Lost and Grounded brews—is far and away the brewery's best-seller, accounting for roughly 50% of its sales.
If it's still striking for an upstart British brewery to clean up with a classic, if exceptionally crafted, Pilsner, Lost and Grounded is less a deviant entity, more a harbinger. As juice-saturated palates start to seek out subtler elegance, it's easy to see where a beer like Keller Pils offers significant crowd appeal. But crucially, Lost and Grounded is also revered amongst brewers who are aware of the significant technical challenges that underlie their production.
In the space of a year and a half, Troncoso and Clements have carved out a niche as one of the few British craft breweries to do Lager justice. "There is a lot of noise in the market with so many incredible beers and breweries out there, so our approach is to just keep our heads down and make clean, clever and consistent beers," Troncoso says.
So far, that approach is paying off.
With 11 taps and a curated bottle list of more than 110 beers, Stéfan Cauwenbergs opened Billie's Bier Kafétaria with Helena Van Geyte in December 2013, a stone's throw from the historic city center of Antwerp. It combined an attractively old-fashioned “brown” café character—wooden furniture and kitchy brewing paraphernalia—with a modern taproom offering, Belgian and international, styles old world and new. Cauwenbergs’ French bulldog struts around the café like he owns the place. Which is fitting given that his name is on the door.
At the beginning of December this year, Cauwenbergs—together with the owners of the mobile beer bar, Bierdelicatesse—organized a beer festival in Antwerp, the format of which featured an all-in ticket (price: €60), a wholly unfamiliar system in Belgium, one considered in many beer circles here to be too expensive and overly-ambitious.
Cauwenbergs and his team introduced a model of unlimited 10cl pours, similar to international festivals such as the Beavertown Extravaganza and Copenhagen Beer Celebration, hosting Belgian breweries such as Alvinne, De La Senne, Rodenbach, Verzet, Struise, and Dochter van de Korenaar, as well as UK beer makers like Beavertown, Fourpure, Magic Rock, and Verdant, and U.S. breweries such as Perennial, Stone, and Founders.
The festival completely sold out its two-day weekend run, a distinct beer list on each day, and became one of the most highly praised beer events in Belgium this year. In a country where progress takes generations, the success of Cauwenbergs and his team has the capacity to steer a different course for Belgian beer in coming years. Any change will, of course, be slow.
Historically speaking, Georgia’s moved quite slowly at improving its beer laws, which just happen to be some of the very worst in the nation. But in a relatively small amount of time (five years now, more than three of which she’s served as Executive Director), Nancy Palmer and the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild have made significant, meaningful change for The Peach State’s beer scene.
In their biggest victory to date, Georgia beer makers were finally allowed to sell their product directly to customers as of Sept. 1. There’s a cap on how much they can sell per day (288 ounces, or one case) and per year (3,000 barrels) to-go, but it’s a big start and a major win for small business. It seems the brewers were ready, too, as they quickly started defining success in myriad ways under the new law. And one brewery in particular plans to sell 99% of its production directly to customers in 2018.
As for Palmer and her Guild, well, they’ve got their work cut out for them in the years to come. From franchise laws to self-distribution to various off-kilter regulations to a 14% ABV cap: Georgia’s got no shortage of restrictive red tape. But for now, beer lovers in Atlanta, Athens, Savannah, and beyond are raising their glasses in celebration.
—Austin L. Ray
There’s palpable excitement in Burning Sky’s founder Mark Tranter as he bounds up a ladder inside a former barn opposite the building that houses his brewery, climbing up to where his brand new coolship sits.
“Let me spray it with water for you, so it looks nicer in your photos,” he says.
This coolship is the first of its kind to be installed in the UK since the 1930s. At Burning Sky, Tranter will be using it to inoculate wort for the eventual production of spontaneously fermented beer. The wort will have a helping hand too, thanks to the wooden staves hanging above the vessel itself.
Since its 2013 opening, Burning Sky has steadily become one of the UK’s best breweries. Its hoppy beers in cask, keg, and bottle are great, but the real meat of the project has always been the beer aging in its small collection of foeders and barrels.
Burning Sky’s new coolship will take these wood-matured beers to spontaneously fermented new heights. But its significance is more than that. As this one brewery rises to the next level, it’ll be on the rest of the British beer scene to keep up.
It’s been a less-than-stellar year for Australian politics. Several politicians, including the Deputy Prime Minister, were referred to the High Court in a dual-citizenship crisis (the surreal saga has its own Wikipedia page), there was a national same sex marriage poll which resulted in the validity of many relationships being put up for public vote (same sex marriage was, fortunately, legalized as a result, but yikes) and, worst of all, we’ve seen the reprehensible treatment of people on Manus Island, which has been described as ”hell for refugees” and called ”shocking and inexcusable” by the UN.
At least our beer is progressive?
Our industry has received what feels like a lone political voice of support from Anthony Albanese, former Deputy Prime Minister (not the one referenced from above) and the opposition Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities, and Regional Development. Affectionately referred to as Albo, he’s a champion for small brewers. This year he helped launch the Inner West Brewers Association for breweries based in his voting area. In December, he tabled a petition in Parliament calling for changes to excise taxes.
“Craft breweries are growing,” he said in his speech. “There’s now over 400 around Australia. Small businesses employing people in local communities, providing a center for community activity in our suburbs and our regions.”
When launching the IWBA he pointed out that 50-litre kegs are taxed at a lower rate than 30-litre kegs, which he explains is an advantage to bigger brewers due to the size and costs involved. Small brewers often prefer and rely on smaller volumes to get their beer out to a wider audience.
Reducing tax on any alcohol is a tough thing to champion. He’s gone out of his way to spend time talking to the breweries in his district and is working to help recognise their hard work and to give them a fighting shot in the increasingly competitive Australian drinks market. Shoutout to Albo.
The odometer keeping track of U.S. breweries seemed to jump from one oil change to the next this year—5,100, 5,400, 5,700, now just north of 6,000. Within that ever-growing group, some brewers are playing checkers. Others? Chess. In 2017, Nick Nunns was on his Bobby Fischer shiz.
Not content to simply continue producing some of the best, most consistent beer available anywhere, Nunns and his Denver-based TRVE Brewing Co. managed to challenge and push traditional distribution models. TRVE’s fledgling distribution arm, which began with an agreement with Burial Beer Co. in 2016, began to show promise and growth. Joining the smartly-curated and similarly-minded roster this year were The Commons (RIP) and fellow Mile High City beer makers, Our Mutual Friend. Not to mention the other five breweries that picked TRVE as their Colorado distributor of choice for GABF. Or the nearly 20 that worked with them to get a keg or two into town for one-off events that week.
On top of all that, Nunns maintained his role as rebel (speaking out against the Méthode Traditionelle appellation), steward (helping launch the Sour and Wild Ales Guild), contrarian (going against the grain of the Brewers Association), and boundary-pusher (releasing TRVE’s first spontaneous beer, as well as an intentionally-lightstruck beer). Not too shabby.
Come to think of it, maybe Fischer is too facile. Nunns is on Spock’s level.
The past few years in Maryland have been contentious, as brewers have been fighting for loosened regulations in the face of staunch opposition from powerful, deep-pocketed wholesalers. In April, though, they scored what could best be described as half a win with the passage of a bill that would allow them to sell more beer from the point of production. While a sign of progress, the legislation also implemented a controversial buy-back rule that required brewers wishing to sell more than 2,000 barrels to purchase anymore of their own product from wholesalers. In turn, brewers reluctantly acknowledged the bill as a “positive step forward for Maryland’s hospitality industry.”
The state’s chief alcohol regulator, however, didn’t bother pretending the compromise was anything more than sketchy politics. Rather, Comptroller Peter Franchot went on record with DC Beer and called the bill “crony capitalism” at its worst, adding the legislation exemplified why “citizens are so angry at Annapolis.” “That a brewery would have to purchase its own beer, after paying to manufacture it, makes no sense,” he continued. “Some well-connected interests can just come in and get what they want.” Fiery stuff!
But Franchot wasn’t even close to finished. In light of the new law, he went on to assemble a taskforce to examine the state’s regulatory climate. And this past November, that task force released its findings and proposed a whole litany of new laws that would essentially erase every onerous burden currently imposed on the state’s brewers. Now, it’s up to the state to enact or disregard those proposed changes. But either way, through his efforts, Franchot himself emerged as the type of enforcer in a high place that brewers across the country can only hope to see assume power in their own communities.
There are but a few breweries among the nation’s 5,000-plus able to produce significant volume without also having to send much of their beer out into the world. For the members of this select group, demand for their product is so great that they’re afforded the luxury of being able to brew and then simply sell the majority of beer right at the point of production. No fighting for taps. No fighting for shelf space. No worrying whether they own proper share of mind in a distributor’s book. Boston-born Trillium Brewing is one of these businesses.
In 2017, though, the company flipped the paradigm a bit and redefined for itself what it means to be a primarily “own-premise” operation. Twice, in fact, the company partnered with area nonprofits to launch seasonal beer gardens, one which operated throughout the summer and into early fall in the heart of downtown Boston, and another, open now, located inside a formerly derelict substation in the Roslindale neighborhood. In turn, Trillium proved capable of serving its beer “from the source” in entirely new places in a way that simultaneously introduced its renowned NE IPAs to innumerable new drinkers that fall well beyond the typical beer geek circles.
The company hasn’t publicly committed, however, if the seasonal beer garden concept will become a mainstay of future operations. Asked about the future of the project, co-founder Esther Tetreault told GBH back in November simply that the company is “always open to evaluating new projects,” adding “the beer garden concept is one we really love.” No less, the work Trillium did this year served to separate the company from the broader pack of brewers who enjoy a certain rare If-You-Build-It-They-Will-Come privilege. Indeed, Trillium began building it exactly where it knew the proverbial “they” already were.