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Archive | June, 2008

Musing: How to get better mileage (beer included)

No matter how high gas prices go beer is still more expensive.

Just a fact. Not a statement whether that should be considered good or bad, but a reminder the bumper sticker we saw last week claiming “Beer, now cheaper than gas” remains incorrect.

Sunday morning, in the northeast reaches of British Columbia where a village with 79 residents merits a good-size dot on the map, we saw diesel for $1.80.* That works out to more than $6.80 a gallon.

We didn’t fill up there. When we stopped a little farther down the road to take on enough gas at $1.66 to get us to a more populated region where gas was $1.43 I noticed you could buy a six-pack of Budweiser for $13.25 including tax. That works out to more than $6 per liter. (Pretty much an aside: the average six-pack from Yukon Brewing costs $13 at the brewery door in Whitehorse.)

There is a part of the beer/gas comparison that might save you a few pennies. Slower consumption boosts mileage. Five weeks into this adventure we’ve passed 14 vehicles on the open road, and although I’m not sure how much gas we’ve saved (maybe four percent, perhaps twice that — if you have documented information please share it) by puttering along between 40 and 55 m.p.h. I know that’s also been easier to spot bears, sheep and other critters (even a lynx) we might have sped by.

And at the end of the day a single bottle of flavorful beer probably goes a lot further than two bottles of mass-produced beer. I typed probably because I haven’t conducted this actual experiment, nor do I intend to.

*Rather than listing prices to the tenth — such as one dollar, 79 and nine-tenths — prices are rounded.

Composed Monday at the Charlie Lake Provincial Park a bit north and west of Dawson Creek, B.C., the official southern end of the Alaska Highway. Posted Wednesday from Spruce Grove, Alberta, where diesel is $1.29 per liter.

Beer from a place, and the place is Alaska

Beers from Alaskan Brewing taste like this:

Alaskan Marine Highway

And like this:

Alaskan totem pole

They taste like they are from Alaska, and once you’ve traveled the Alaskan Marine Highway from one port to another you’ll realize that more specifically Alaskan Brewing beers taste of Southeast Alaska.

Quite honestly I paused for a moment last week when Alaskan co-founder Geoff Larson said that the brewery sells more than 70 percent of its beers beyond Alaska’s borders. After all, we’re at the beginning of our Year of Drinking Local, and know full well that many beers suffer the farther they travel from home.

In the next few hours I realized how well timed this stop in our family adventure — generally not a beer trip but a trip in which we are drinking beer — turned out to be. It put the importance of local and place back in perspective. A local beer that doesn’t reflect where it’s brewed doesn’t interest me nearly as much as a beer that comes from a place, even when we may be far from that place.

Of course you understand that much more easily if you’ve been there.

This particular day in Juneau was a working day. I started collecting Geoff and Marcy Larson’s oral history as well as gathering information for two stories. But the days before and after were at least as important in getting to better know beers I’ve been drinking for 15 years. The there in the beers is on a trail overlooking Mendenhall Glacier, on a ferry traveling through the Wrangell Narrows, chilled to the bone hiking in a “temperate” rain forest, or watching a server set down a plate of massive crab legs in a restaurant.

Alaskan beer is everywhere, clearly a source of state pride. Neon signs brighten most bar windows. Souvenir shops that cater to cruise ships prominently display Alaskan T-shirts (a local grocery sells an Alaskan T and hat package), and we saw how many locals wearing Alaskan sweatshirts?

What percentage of drinkers in Seattle or Phoenix (both good markets for Alaskan beers) have shared these experiences? Probably not a huge number. What percentage care that Alaskan Amber is based on a recipe used to brew a regional beer in the early 1900s? Care that Alaskan Winter Ale features spruce tips from local trees (and a tradition that goes back to when Captain Cook traveled the Inside Passage)? Care that that Native Americans determined hundreds of years ago that alder (the only truly hardwood available in Alaska) was best for smoking fish, and now Alaskan smokes malt for its famous Smoked Porter over adler. Again, not as many as I would like.

They mostly care if the beer is good, rather than thinking of the measures Alaskan’s brewers take to assure that beer sold “down South” (as Alaskans refer to the Lower 48) still tastes of Alaska.

One quick report from their quality control lab: Each batch of beer is plated (scrutinized under a microscope) ten times before it goes into a bottle. Each day a tasting panel (all employees participate on a rotating basis) convenes in the QC lab. They taste finished beers, beers in progress, small batches sold only regionally, smaller batches that never leave the brewery and more.

I’m pretty sure they know just what a beer from Alaska should taste like.

Musing: So does it matter if A-B gets taken over?

It’s still Monday in Tok, Alaska.

I’m not sure why I feel obliged to voice an opinion on the very good chance Inbev will successfully take control of Anheuser-Busch. Back when I was writing a monthly editorial for RBPMail it would have been a must, but now there are how many thousand beer blogs? Even though my reading time is pretty limited I’ve seen enough to know opinions abound. So I’ll keep it short.

Pete Brown makes it easier to be brief with a fine post about what Interbrew was and what Inbev is. A few years ago I wrote in a business story that small brewers could learn several lessons from Interbrew. That was before Interbrew was rolled into Inbev and Inbev jacked with Hoegaarden so capriciously, but Pete’s got a nice summary.

I understand his feelings about Anheuser-Busch — if you still need an excuse to read Three Sheets to the Wind use this as one to buy the book — although I don’t altogether agree. I know too many people who work at A-B who are just as passionate about beer as those Pete worked with at Interbrew.

OK, Shock Top Belgian White seems like a beer that came out of the marketing department. But in the last few years individual A-B breweries released regional beers that began as suggestions from employees. Michelob, just-another-adjunct beer, became Michelob, all-malt beer. Maybe things change in this beer world turned upside down, but A-B did announce its plans to spin off Michelob as a separate entity, and that one of its first acts would be to release Michelob Dunkel Weisse nationally. So what? Well, the dunkelweizen that was produced in Fort Collins for sale only in Colorado and only on draft was a fine beer.

All that is progress, and seems unlikely to continue if Inbev is in charge. Remember Inbev decided to shut down the Rolling Rock brewery before it then sold the brand to A-B. Apparently Rolling Rock simply could have disappeared when the brewery doors closed. This was an operation that produced more beer than any craft brewing company other than Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada.

Interbrew calling itself the “world’s local brewer” always seemed more like marketing than fact, but for the words seem worth reconsidering since we are at the beginning of our Year of Drinking Local. A week and some on Southeast Alaskan coast has vividly reminded me that the best local beers aren’t just local, but reflect the place where they are brewed. And when they do are special enough you want to seek them out far from their home. But that’s a discussion for the next post.

Back to Inbev and A-B. I wouldn’t argue either really cares about local or about place, and that’s why I can’t get fired up either way about this business deal.

But practically speaking I think there’s a better chance an independent Anheuser-Busch would brew beers we’d drink at the neighbor’s cookout than an A-B operating under orders from somewhere else.

Further reading

This possible deal touches every country where consumers drink beer. Read Martyn Cornell’s post, InBev versus Bud: Am I Bovvered?, for a sense of perspective.

The return of Open Source Beer

Flying Dog Ales is reprising its Open Source Beer Project, but in the spirit of Web 2.0 hopes to make the 2008 version better than 2007.

Thus the following challenge:

“We are looking to expand the Open Source Beer Project into the latest version 1.1 or 2.0. Seeing this is open source we thought we would solicit ideas from the People’s Republic of Flying Dog. We will be accepting concepts from June 18th through July 18th. If your idea is used you will win one of the limited edition Ralph Steadman signed bottles of Gonzo Imperial Porter that we released in 2005. Check out the contest page on June 18th for more details or email your idea to bullshit@flyingdogales.com.

My suggestion?

Integrate Twitter and/or Flickr into the process.

Q&A with Jim Koch, prices included

Don Russell has an excellent little interview with Boston Beer founder Jim Koch today.

As well as everything you could want to know about Samuel Adams Light he addresses the matter of rising beer prices. As always, Koch offers some great sound bites:

– “But you can’t reduce costs by taking ingredients out. People will forgive us for raising the prices 5 percent. They won’t forgive us for taking 5 percent of the malt or hops out of the beer.”

– “For 6 cents on a bottle, are you going to switch to Natty Bo?”

Also some legitimate perspective:

“In 1950, when people were drinking cheap beer, bad wine and nasty spirits, the average American spent 3.5 percent of their disposable income on alcoholic beverages. Fast-forward to today, when we’re drinking craft and imported beers, fine wines and good liquors, the average American is spending 1.5 percent of their disposable income on alcoholic beverages, and per capita consumption is relatively level.”

Read the whole interview.

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