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The life cycle of beer innovation

A quick exchange of comments here Monday provoked this thought from Boak & Bailey about what happens to even the most dominant of breweries over time:

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap …”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

Of course change is inevitable, but is complacency? The number of “breweries in planning” illustrates there are already plenty of pesky competitors nipping at the heals of the largest of the small breweries (otherwise known as “big craft” or just “craft”), and projects like Sierra Nevada’s “Beer Camp Across America” sure indicate somebody’s not punching out at 4:59.

No arguing that the crazy growth of beers with IPA somewhere in their name suggest that a few brewers might do a little more thinking on their own, but together IPAs, PAs and “seasonals” still don’t account for half of sales. That’s a lot more diversity than the days when the choices were pale lager and light pale lager.

Twenty years ago, when Sierra Nevada sold about one-fifth of what it does now, it seemed like almost every new brewer talked in glowing terms about how great Sierra Nevada Pale Ale tastes, then added “but I want to make something different.” Think about when Stone Brewing opened in 1996. “When I brewed at Pyramid (in Washington) we made a Cascade pale ale, and I was a little sensitive about doing what we’d done at Pyramid,” co-founder Steve Wager explained. He and Greg Koch decided not to use Cascade hops (also a signature for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) in any of their beers, and made a big deal out of it. “We had some fun,” he said.

Five days ago, August Schell Brewing Company, established in 1860 and the second oldest brewery in the country, won two medals at the World Beer Cup. It earned gold for Schell’s Firebrick, a Vienna-style lager. File that under traditional. It took a bronze for Schell’s Framboise du Nord, made by adding a boatload of raspberries to Star of the North, a Berliner Weisse, and refermenting that for an additional four months. This all happens in Schell’s original 1936 cypress wood lagering tanks.

Some tradition in there, for sure, but also something else. Definitely, 154 years in, not complacency.

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Friday beer: Gen. Sherman IPA

Another “not a review” review, meaning a photo with a short caption. The beer is Gen. Sherman IPA from Tioga-Sequoia Brewing in Fresno, Calif., enjoyed after a hike, sitting on a hotel balcony in Yosemite National Park, looking pretty much right at Yosemite Falls.

If trees could talk

If trees could talk.

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Nineteen ninety-five: beer change afoot

Boak & Bailey have invited other bloggers to “go long” today, and despite two months lead time what I planned to post is not close to done. So, here’s something originally written for print, Beer Connoisseur magazine, in 2010. A few of the breweries have grown in the three-plus years since it appeared and Pete’s closed altogether.

*****

The beer headlines of 1995 screamed change.

“MILLER BREWING BUYS STAKE IN CELIS BREWERY”

“CRAFT BEER SALES INCREASE BY 70%”

“BOSTON BEER STOCK SOARS 65% IN FIRST DAYS OF TRADING”

Fifteen years after Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi began selling their Sierra Nevada beers in 1980 America’s beer renaissance demanded attention. In that sense, 1995 was little different than the year before or the one after, but taking a closer look at bits and pieces from that single year reveals a measure of history that was not yet obvious. American beer was not returning to some place it had been previously. A new beer culture had emerged, and with it new beers often unlike any brewed before and certainly unlike any made in America.

*****

Dan Weirback begins his 30-minute morning commute in the rolling hills northwest of Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, on blacktop roads that lead in Interstate 78. Driving east to the town of Easton, where he started Weybacher Brewing in 1995, he passes a sprawling brewery that was “the world’s most modern brewery” when the F&M Schaefer Brewing Co. built it in 1972. Schaefer, founded in 1842, was still the fifth largest brewing company in the country.

From the time the Stroh Brewery bought Schaefer lock, brand and brewery in 1981 ongoing change at the complex reflected the upheaval in American brewing. Boston Beer contracted with Stroh to have Samuel Adams products brewed here from 1994 to 2001. That was never simple, because the processes for making Sam Adams beers and a adjunct lagers like Stroh’s and the other brands it sold were much different. Pabst owned the plant briefly, before giving up brewing any of its own beer. Diageo North America then produced Smirnoff Ice in the gorgeous copper vessels. And in 2008 Boston Beer acquired the brewery for itself.

When Weirback started his brewery anything seemed possible, and sometimes it was. One of 196 brewpubs that opened in 1995, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, grew quite famously from an operation where founder Sam Calagione made 12 gallons at a time to one of the 20 largest craft breweries in the country (producing about one-third of a million gallons in 2010).

One of 91 new microbreweries in 1995, Kona Brewing also blossomed into a top 20 brewery despite being located in rather distant Hawaii. In Montana, the nation’s 48th most densely populated state, Big Sky Brewing’s sales rocketed because of its cleverly named Moose Drool Brown Ale. Breweries such Midnight Sun in Alaska, AleSmith in Southern California and Weyerbacher did not become as large, but their beers developed cult followers.

That wasn’t Weirback’s original plan. He expected his easy drinking beers — drawing upon British tradition, including both the ingredients and process — to reach a wide audience, and that the brewery would sell tens of thousands of 31-gallon barrels, maybe even a hundred thousand, a year. “Boy, did I had a lot to learn,” Weirback said recently, smiling at his own youthful optimism.

Wearing a T-shirt, shorts and boots, he’d helped on the bottling line in the morning. Now he took a drink from a bottle labeled Verboten and explained how his business plan evolved, why his brewery could be much smaller than he expected, producing about 6,000 barrels this year, and still profitable.

“Our edge is esoteric styles, unique beers,” he said. Every two months the brewery releases a new draft beer, which may be brewed only one time or could become a regular offering. Each is named using the NATO phonetic alphabet. Verboten — 5.9% abv, fermented with yeast from Belgium and bittered and flavored with American Northwest hops — was first called Alpha. Weyerbacher beers often feature more intense flavors than others, sometimes because they are aged in wood or with wild yeast strains.

“These were the (type of) beers I enjoyed making as a homebrewer, the ones I like to drink. I had an idea this would be a good way to go, but I didn’t know how much potential it had,” he said, explaining the evolution. “It’s not like it was a grand strategy. It was the only thing that kept the doors open month to month (in 1997 and 1998).”

When Weirback introduced Hops Infusion India Pale Ale in 1998 the blend of seven hops delivered unexpected and complex hop flavors and aromas as well as bitterness. He and head brewer Chris Wilson reformulated the recipe in 2006. “It needed to come up to speed with the rest of the industry,” Weirback said. “It had become way under-hoppy, although it was the same beer.”

*****

Judges at the 1995 Great American Beer Festival in Denver handed out medals in 37 categories, fewer than half the number contested today. They weren’t designed to accommodate wood-aged beers, sour beers or imperial beers; not even imperial stouts.

Nonetheless, brewers poured those sorts of beers and drinkers found them. In Booth II-14, Vinnie Cilurzo served the first commercial “Double IPA” anybody ever heard of. He brewed the beer in June of 1994, his first batch at Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula, California. He aged it on oak for nine months and served it on the brewery’s first anniversary as “Inaugural Ale.” It was 15 months old when he hauled it to GABF. Eight years later 39 breweries entered their beers in the new Imperial IPA category. That included Cilurzo’s Pliny the Elder, a much different Double IPA he first made at Russian River Brewing in 1999.

Right around the corner in II-16, Goose Island Brewing from Chicago introduced Bourbon County Stout to its widest audience yet. Brewmaster Greg Hall first made the beer to celebrate the brewpub’s 1,000th batch, aging an imperial stout for 100 days in whiskey barrels. He took it to Denver for the first time in 1995 and Fred Eckhardt – the dean of American beer writers – quickly proclaimed it the best beer he had ever tasted at GABF. The judges apparently weren’t as impressed. Bourbon County Stout earned an honorable mention as a “strong ale.” Today there are four wood- and barrel-aged categories at GABF, and a Goose Island warehouse designed to hold 1,200 bourbon barrels is nearly full.

At six-foot-eight, Kinney Baughman first attracted as much as attention as the beers he was pouring for Cottonwood Grille & Brewery in North Carolina. Then drinkers got a taste of, and began to spread the word about, his raspberry beers. Both were wild and tart, rich with . “Carolina culture.” The Belgian Amber Framboise won a bronze medal in Belgian-Style Specialty Ales, although Baughman liked the Black Framboise even better.

Baughman discovered he loved beer in the 1970s, at the same time he was playing professional basketball in Belgium. He began brewing at home in 1980 after he returned to the United States. He also developed and sold homebrewing equipment while working at Appalachian State University. Cottonwood didn’t recruit him to brew sour Belgian beers in Boone, but to clean up an infected brewery. “The stuff was awful,” Baughman said. “They couldn’t give it away.”

He brewed beers customers want, and soon it was time to expand the brewery. “We were running out of kegs,” he said. He grabbed a few five-gallon kegs, some with beer still in them, from a personal stash that had been lying around for several years. Baughman didn’t realize the cleanser he used before putting fresh beer in them wouldn’t kill all the Pediococcus (a wild yeast) that had grown in the kegs. When the beers he put in those kegs started to taste tart he knew immediately what had happened.

“Anybody else probably would have thrown them out,” he said. But he remembered beers he had tasted in Belgium. He understood the difference between a foul infection and the magical flavors wild yeast strains can produce. So he began to blend, experimenting with different portions of tart beer, beer that hadn’t been near the infected kegs, and raspberries. “I thought it was time to show Boone what a Belgian beer tasted like,” he said.

Baughman, who is director of information technology at Applachian State, left Cottonwood not long after and brewing a few years later. Carolina Beer Company bought the Cottonwood brand name and still produces a variety of its recipes. That doesn’t include either of the framboise beers, but the memory of “Carolina culture” lingers for those of us who tasted it in 1995.

*****

Boston Beer Co. and Pete’s Brewing Co. together sold about 1.3 million barrels of beer in 1995, almost of it brewed under contract. Not long after the two companies went public their combined market capitalization reached about $570 million. At the time Coors, since merged with Molson and affiliated with Miller Brewing, brewed 20 million barrels of beer, owned its own breweries, and had a market cap of $725 million. Look again — does that math make sense?

Little wonder everybody wanted a piece of the craft beer action. Miller tried a shortcut, buying a stake in two up-and-coming not-so-micro breweries, Shipyard Brewing in Maine and the Celis Brewery in Texas. Neither partnership worked as Miller hoped. Shipyard founders Fred Forsley and Alan Pugsley soon bought their brewery back and it continues to prosper. Pierre Celis and his family chose to exercise an option that required Miller to purchase the rest of the Celis Brewery in 2000. Miller shut it down not long after, selling the equipment and Celis brand name to Michigan Brewing.

The obvious child wasn’t always so obvious. Coors made an initially small investment in developing Blue Moon Belgian White Ale and waited years for it to pay off. Keith Villa, who was in charge of new product development, and Jim Sabia, who worked in the marketing department, were given the task of launching the brand on a shoestring. They had no marketing budget, no distribution deal, and no place to brew their beer. For the first few years Blue Moon was brewed under contract like several other craft beers, but eventually grew big enough for Coors (now MillerCoors) to brew itself.

“The tough part was getting people to try a cloudy beer,” Villa said. He sent out a memo suggesting accounts garnish the glass with an orange. Problem was that bars had only lemons and limes, often to put in the neck of a Corona beer. “Nobody had oranges back then,” Villa said. “We’d show up at accounts with a bag of oranges and tell them how to do it. Pretty soon people were calling us asking, ‘Where’s my bag of oranges?’”

Blue Moon White,- now backed by television advertising although many consumers still don’t know Coors owns the brand, grew into the biggest selling beer wheat beer in U.S. history.

In 1995, Boston Beer and Pete’s together accounted for about 31 percent of craft beer sales. With the purchase of the Fogelsville brewery, Boston Beer completed the transformation from a company that paid to have most its beer made in other breweries to one that owns those kettles. Pete’s, a strong No. 2 in 1995, today doesn’t even rank among the top 50 largest craft breweries. The company sold almost 350,000 barrels in 1995, 20,000 in 2009, and never did own its own brewery.

When two long-time friends started Ska Brewing in southwest Colorado they certainly would not have predicted they’d sell as much beer as Pete’s. Their brewery likely won’t this year, but sales have reached about 15,000 barrels and a new $4.2 million facility they opened in 2009 has room to expand. Even before Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham turned a hobby into a business in 1995, they labeled their homebrewed beer from “Ska Brewing.” They played Ska music while they made beer. They understood the budding beer culture because they were part of it.

“You could see the beginning of the shakeout,” Thibodeau said. “There were people rushing in . . . They didn’t have the passion.”

They were cautious, keeping their day jobs, meeting at 5 o’clock each afternoon to begin brewing, then often working until 3 a.m. “Thank god we were as young as we were,” said Thibodeau, now in his early 40s.

Ska is one of four breweries in Durango, a town of about 15,000, all members of the Bootlegger’s Society, initially formed to raise money in support of community causes. Their first event was a “Pint for Pint” blood drive (rewarding blood donors with a pint of beer) that’s since been emulated by blood services organizations throughout the country. The foundation was laid even before Ska began brewing. Ska was just an idea when Thibodeau and Graham first met Bill Carver, who already ran a successful brewpub in town.

They told him what they were thinking about. He looked his potential competitors over for just a moment. “We’ll put you guys on tap,” he said.

“We’ve been a guest tap at Carver’s for 15 years,” Thibodeau said, making it clear what mattered wasn’t that single a draft line.

“That set a precedent for how we’d run our business.”

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Friday beer: Country Boy Chestnut Brown

Shopping for chestnuts

I must confess that I’m pretty sure I did not “get” chestnut beers until last Friday.

I understood they are a big deal in Italy. When we visited in in 2008, Birra Del Borgo founder Leonardo Di Vincenzo called them “the essence of Italian brewing.” More than 300 varieties of chestnuts grow in Italy, some of them earning a protected mark from the European Community. On any October weekend you’ll find a chestnut festival in at least one Tuscan village, each a celebration of local food products.

Scores of Italian breweries make chestnut beers, across a crazy range of “styles.” (Having taken original inspiration from a homebrewer, Di Vincenzo says.) Some were excellent, like Di Vincenzo’s own 4.2% abv CastagnAle, subtle and nuanced, or Palanfrina, a 8.5% abv monster from Birrificio Troll in the north. But even though they were nicely nutty, and sometimes — like CastagnAle — a touch smoky, I didn’t take a drink and think “chestnut.”

(Closer to home, Winged Nut, one of Urban Chestnut Brewing’s flagship beers, is made with chestnuts. Maybe those nuts — the the state of Missouri actively promotes them as an agricultural product — will mean more when the chestnut trees at the brewery grow larger, but for now I think of the beer as a nice dunkelweizen.)

I tried Chestnut Brown Ale from Country Boy Brewing primarily because brewing brothers Evan and Nathan Coppage tell a great story about what a pain in the butt it is to make. (Was to make; they the swear they never will again.) It was excellent, rich in the same way as good barbecue sauce. What I did not say upon tasting it was, “Nice expression of chestnut.” I was about halfway through the beer when it came time to open the bottle from Ale Apothecary I wrote about Wednesday. I put my beer down while I attempted to get a good photo.

When I picked the glass up and took a quick whiff there the memory was. Florence, late afternoon into evening, cobblestone streets, a vendor with roasted chestnuts, a gelato shop around the corner.

All in that glass. Pretty amazing.

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Monday beer links, musing 02.03.14

- Camden Hells, perhaps brewed in Camden Town

Not as local as it looks. The curious case of Camden Hells. Long story, but go read it. Basically, sometimes the beer is brewed at Camden Town brewery (in London) and sometimes not. Lots of reporting by Boak & Bailey and a survey about if, and how much, consumers care about this question: Do you think it is important for a brewery to declare where a beer is made? (I was one of 125 who marked “essential”) Again, go read it, and if you don’t come back I’ll understand.

That’s a glass of Camden Hells in the photo at the top, taken last March in London. The beer was good, but not as crisp as I remembering it being the previous time I had a half pint in 2011. That time I was in England doing research for the hops book, heading on to Germany a few days later. Visiting Private Landbrauerei Schönram in the south of Bavaria I commented to brewmaster Eric Toft that Camden Hells reminded me of Schönramer Hell. It should have, he said, because his brewery had just sold a batch to Camden. That’s why I was drinking it in March, pretty sure it had been brewed in Camden Town and maybe it didn’t taste as crisp to me because I expected it would be less Bavarian. Such are the tricks expectations can play with our senses.

My lack of mental discipline aside, if you head for the comments section of the post you’ll see some people care about place, some don’t, and when the conversation turns to contract brewing there’s a bit of rudeness. Look, I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. This would matter to me if I drank in London more often than every two or three years. And although the tagline here reads “celebrating beer from a place” I recognize not everybody tastes that or cares about it.

Transparency, on the other hand, I do care about all the time. And Camden Town seems to be failing there.

[Via Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog]

- Hops farming grows slowly despite brewers’ demand. Just noticed this one. Working on a story for Zymurgy magazine I’ve been talking to people in a position to assess the quality of hops grown outside the American Northwest and they are impressed. But success is not a done deal. These newly minted hop farmers cannot compete on the basis of price, and perhaps they never will. [Via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

- Craft No More? Largest Norwegian Craft Brewery Sells Out. News that Hansa Borg bought a 54% share of Nøgne Ø is a couple of months old. What’s interesting is the German take on the story and that this question seems to get asked everywhere: “The dilemma of craft beer gone mainstream seems to hinge upon one question: Is there a place in my mind where I can accept the idea of a huge company bringing me excellent beer?” [Via Brew Berlin]

- You’re Only as Old as You Taste: That Time I Ruined Bottles of Hopslam Because SCIENCE! Passed along because I so enjoy reminding you that hop aroma and flavor are delicate. [Via This Is Why I'm Drunk]

- Hoarding beer in Clintonville leaves some hopping mad. Hopslam, Part II. [Via The Columbus Dispatch]

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