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Blast from the past: ‘Macros or micros?’

Paste Magazine has a rather comprehensive post today which is pretty much what the headline says: “A Not-So Nefarious History of Craft and Crafty Beer.” I don’t need much of an excuse to dig into the personal archives. So here’s something I wrote for All About Beer in 1997, as is, without the benefit of a safety net the rear mirror can provide.

The subhead on this story read: “What happens when the large breweries enter the ‘little guys’ territory?”

Scene 1: A church-run festival in Covington, La.
Boiled crawfish cost $1.25 a pound, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. is pounding out zydeco, and cups of beer sell for $1.50 each. The choices are Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob Hefeweizen. When a customer orders the hefeweizen — and quite a few do — the man taking the orders turns to the pourer and says: “One heavyweight.”

Scene 2: Applebee’s Grill & Bar, Milwaukee, Wis.
A customer orders a beer called B. Barley’s, which recently became available on tap at Applebee’s around the country. The tap handle includes the information the ale is brewed by Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. Although B. Barley’s is made exclusively for Applebee’s and available only on tap, when the customer returns home to northern Wisconsin he tries Leinenkugel’s Auburn Ale from a bottle, which is not exactly the same beer but similar.

Scene 3: Cyberspace.
The brewers from Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group are conducting a live tasting of Michelob Specialty beers on the Internet, providing frank and specific answers to questions about A-B products. Somebody in Orlando, Fla., wants to know why Crossroads, a beer test-marketed in 1995, was never put into full production. Brewer Steve Michaluk notes the beer may have been “ahead of its time,” and that it was much closer in style to a Bavarian hefeweizen than the current Michelob Hefeweizen.

Michaluk and Mitch Steele make it clear they are nonetheless proud of the second beer and delighted with its malt character and the influence of Cascade hops. “American hefeweizen might be more aptly named American wheat ale,” Michaluk types, “which is what our Michelob Hefeweizen is and what most of the hefeweizens popular in the Northwest are.”

The largest breweries in the United States are sending their specialty beers where they haven’t gone before, often where no specialty beers have gone. While those at smaller breweries watch with understandable concern, in most parts of the country the short-term result has meant more choices for consumers. “The good news is that more people will be able to get good beer,” said American Specialty Craft Beer Co. manager Scott Barnum, who oversees the specialty brewers that Miller Brewing Co. owns partially or in total.

First, it’s a business

Beer lovers shouldn’t forget a key ingredient in the explosion in their number of choices — there’s money to be made selling beer. Anheuser-Busch is in business to make money, as are Miller Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Three Floyds Brewing Co., Two Brothers Brewing Co. and more than 1,000 other breweries in the United States. So are the importers, wholesalers, brewpub operators, bar owners and retail store proprietors.

That’s why the Wall Street Journal and major metropolitan newspapers publish stories about the business of beer, pondering macros going micro and micros going macro. But why should you care about the battle for shelf space in retail stores and tap handles in bars? That six-pack of Michelob Amber Bock in the cooler in a Nebraska gas station didn’t replace a beer from Pyramid or Rogue. It replaced a cold six of some beer you weren’t going to buy.

That’s not the way some smaller brewers and their supporters look at it. They heard those Anheuser-Busch ads that attacked the Boston Beer Co. and are well aware that A-B has made it clear it expects its distributors to focus on selling A-B products. Since A-B and Miller distributors carry enormous clout with retailers, it’s natural to wonder how much room will be left on the shelves and at the bar for small brewers’ beer.

Investors flocked to buy microbrewery stocks two years ago based on future growth in the “high price” segment. The potential for growth remains, but Robert Weinberg — a mathematical economist who consults for both large and small breweries — recently warned microbrewers about making predictions.

“The battlefield will not be in the high price segment. The major brewers will try to re-establish the super premiums,” Weinberg said at the National Craftbrewers Conference in Seattle. “You will be competing with a super premium that doesn’t currently exist.”

Budweiser is a premium beer, Michelob a super premium, and most micros high price. “As the relative price of malt beverages declined, consumers were willing to trade up,” Weinberg said. A-B understood this when it rolled out the Michelob specialty beers. “We have seen some cannibalizing,” said Bob Franceschelli, senior brand manager of the Specialty Brewing Group, meaning that the brewery was essentially stealing sales from itself. “We’re going to end up moving a lot of people into the micro/specialty area. Were they going to move anyway? Probably.”

Deja vu all over again?

Haven’t we seen different beers from the large brewers before? Miller test-marketed Dakota, a wheat ale, in the 1980s. “It was a very good beer. You could drink a lot of it. Very satisfying,” said Jim Robertson, author of the Beer Taster’s Log. “It was an American wheat beer — no cloves or bananas, but it went down smooth.”

The beer simply couldn’t get a hold in any market. “A company not only has to have a good product, but the market has to be there, too,” Barnum said.

Anheuser-Busch tested a variety of beers in the 1990s, including Anheuser Maerzen and Anheuser Pilsner in 1990 and Crossroads in 1995. Robertson remembers when he tasted the Maerzen for the first time. “I thought, this is a classical Maerzen and that these guys could wipe out anybody they wanted,” he said.

Muenchener Munich Style Amber, which the brewery introduced with its American Original beers in 1995, earned three stars (out of four) in Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer, but has already been discontinued. Likewise the Elk Mountain beers.

So is it safe to fall in love with any of the latest efforts? A-B is used to selling very large amounts of every beer it makes. Beer is brewed in batches of 400 barrels at it Merrimack, N.H., plant, 500 barrels in Fairfield, Calif., and 750 barrels in Fort Collins, Colo., the three sites where the specialty beers are made. That’s more than was produced of some of the most highly praised microbrewery beers in all of 1996.

Franceschelli said the brewery’s expectations have changed since those earlier tests. “Absolutely. It’s been a huge learning curve,” he said. When the Michelob specialty beers were introduced in February, “we told (distributors) one case in an account is outstanding. Start with one bottle.”

Anheuser-Busch appears to have learned a few things from smaller brewers. In April it rolled out sampler packs of the Michelob specialty beers. It also packaged the draft beer in one-sixth-barrel kegs (one-third the size of most kegs), finding room in crowded taproom coolers and moving the beer while it’s still fresh. Micros and homebrewers have long used smaller kegs, often reconditioned five-gallon soda kegs.

Putting the special in specialty

Although the Stroh Brewery Co. sells a lot more of its own beer, its leadership knows a little bit about the craft beer market. Stroh brews much of the beer for Pete’s Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co. and its Oregon Ale and Beer Co. It brews and sells the Henry Weinhard and Red River specialty beers. It even makes some of the Black & Tan beer sold by D.G. Yuengling & Son, America’s oldest operating brewery.

“We have to do things differently, to look for niches,” said Mark Steinberg, vice president of sales at Stroh. Anheuser-Busch and Miller have more advertising dollars to support their specialty beers, but don’t have the sales to justify the costs. “Besides, if they spend too much, the beers lose their specialty,” Steinberg said.

“There’s something about a customer going into a bar and finding something new,” he said. “People like the sense of discovery in this category.”

Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors Brewing Co. have all taken different approaches. Coors’ Blue Moon beers command micro prices and are available in all 50 states. They include funky styles consumers expect from micros — such as a pumpkin ale and raspberry cream ale — but also a Belgian white, a nut brown ale and, most recently, an abbey-style ale. The beers were first developed at the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver, then brewed under contract at other breweries. Rumors abound that Coors will soon buy a small brewery to produce the Blue Moon brand beers.

Miller’s strategy for selling in the specialty category has been through partnerships. The Reserve line it brewed itself in the early 1990s is long gone, and the brewery has no plans to make specialty beers. “I can never say never, but as this juncture, no,” Barnum said.

Although each of its first three partners is different, that doesn’t mean Miller has been building an overall portfolio to take national. “We’ve said before that this is a regional business,” Barnum said. “More and more, you will see people contracting, narrowing their focus.”

When Miller acquired a majority interest in the Celis Brewery in 1994, the Austin, Texas, brewery was selling its distinctive Belgian-style beers in more than 30 states. Miller cut that down to a handful of states. “They were allocating beer to their distributor in Austin. You can’t build a business like that,” Barnum said. Now that the brewery has added capacity and taken care of its home market, it is available in 14 states. “Celis does well in micro-favorable markets where Pierre (Celis, the brewery’s founder) is known and revered,” Barnum said.

The stories for Shipyard Brewing Co. and Jacob Leinenkugel are different, but similar. Shipyard, brewer of traditional British ales, is available in 12 states. Leinenkugel, the seventh-oldest brewery in the nation and known almost exclusively for its lagers despite the B. Barley’s ale, is sold in 27 states (plus draft in Applebee’s in some other states), but is strongest in its Wisconsin home and the surrounding states.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Barnum said. At Miller that has also meant deciding which is the macrobrewery and which is the micro (you’ve seen the ads).

“The consumer has a hard time paying an above-premium price for a beer brewed at a larger brewery,” Barnum said.

One from column A, two from column B

The leadership at Anheuser-Busch obviously doesn’t believe that, although A-B has also gone into the strategic alliance business. A-B not only brews the Michelob Specialty beers and the American Originals, but is testing other recipes that take direct aim at the high price market. Its ability to put these beers in the pipeline is evident across the country. Not only will you find the Michelob specialty beers in the cooler at a gas station in Baton Rouge, La., but you’ll find beer from the Redhook Ale Brewery as well.

A-B owns a 25 percent share of Redhook, with the right to buy more. As summer began, A-B and Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. were working on finalizing a similar deal. “We have and are talking to more breweries out there. We are being approached quite regularly by these people,” Franceschelli said. While others figure A-B has the money simply to buy up the competition, the deals won’t come that fast. “We make more on what we brew ourselves,” Franceschelli said.

The five Michelob specialty beers released nationally will shock the taste buds of drinkers stepping up from Budweiser and its brethren. Bud, for instance, checks in with 12 International Bittering Units, a measurement of hoppiness. The Amber Bock, Pilsner, Pale Ale and Hefeweizen are all 30 IBUs. The Honey Lager, which goes heavy on the honey, is 12.5 IBUs. The result is that the Pale Ale, which is hopped with American versions of noble European hops, tastes more like a golden ale, while the Hefeweizen, hopped with Cascades and Clusters, hints of a pale ale. The Pale Ale and Hefeweizen are made with the same yeast.

Core microbrewery drinkers often want beers with more pop. The Michelob beers are “not intended to … knock your tonsils out,” Franceschelli said. Steele, the Specialty Group brewmaster, agrees. “The American Originals are a notch above the Michelob brand in intensity,” he said. The American Hop Ale is 5.6 percent alcohol by volume and 50 IBUs. It’s dry-hopped with a healthy dose of American Fuggles. The Black & Tan Porter is the best selling of the “Originals” and hoppier and more complex than the Michelob Porter currently available only in the Northwest.

The most interesting of the current A-B beers is the Pacific Ridge Pale Ale, brewed in Fairfield, Calif., and available only in Northern California. The beer has been called a Sierra Nevada clone, though Steele said it wasn’t brewed as an exact copy. “Our wholesalers asked us for a beer like this … what we were going for was something of that style. I think Sierra Nevada is the best of that style that’s out there.”

The numbers for the beers — Sierra Nevada, 5.5 percent ABV, 39 IBUs; Pacific Ridge, 5.6, 35 — are similar, and so is the taste. Dry-hopping with Cascades gives Pacific Ridge the citrus quality that makes a beer drinker think of Northern California. But like all A-B ales, Pacific Ridge is pasteurized and lacks the yeast character of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. SNPA regulars aren’t likely to mistake the two.

“Pacific Ridge has good opportunities to be expanded,” Franceschelli said. “You will see some new beer before the end of the year.”

These may or may not be labeled Michelob or American Originals. Steele offered some test batches to members of the press in May. Included were a British-style pale ale, an Irish “creme ale” that is conditioned with nitrogen and meant to be dispensed via a Guinness-type system, a spiced winter lager, and a Scotch ale that seems to be a good candidate for reaching the public.

The Scotch ale got good reviews at another press gathering last November, when it was being made on A-B’s 15-barrel pilot system in St. Louis. August Busch III reportedly likes the beer, and the batch Steele showed off in May was made at the Merrimack facility, indicating it’s a step closer to being released. “We’re making the effort,” Steele said, smiling. The beer contains so much malt that it’s mashed in two vessels, then combined into the brew kettle. Two kinds of caramel malt and chocolate malt make the beer more complex than any of the current A-B efforts. The recipe produces a beer that is 7 percent alcohol by volume, which would present distribution problems in some states.

At the turn of the century, A-B brewed 17 brands of beer, ranging from the Hop Ale (which was a low-alcohol temperance beer also sold by mail order) to the Black & Tan Porter. “They were mostly lagers,” said A-B archivist Bill Vollmar. While the brewery could keep turning out beers based on those old recipes, the test batches from Steele and Michaluk focus on new recipes. “There’s a demand for (more choices) and we’re going to satisfy that,” Franceschelli said.

Those crowded shelves

Smaller breweries hope Anheuser-Busch doesn’t try to supply all the choices itself. Of course, craft breweries with shelf clout, such as Boston Beer and Pete’s Brewing, have been adding “year round” beers for the last several years. Much of the battle for space is among microbreweries themselves, and recently that has sparked plenty of teeth-gnashing.

“Everybody I talk to is waiting for the great shakeout,” said Peter Fremming, beverage coordinator at Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, N.Y. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Premier Gourmet sells more than 500 different beers, most of them by the case, six-pack or single bottle, as well as prepared gourmet foods, cooking ingredients and supplies, 90 varieties of coffee roasted in the store, and much more. It’s not at all like the grocery store down the block, but Fremming previously worked for a beer distributor, so he understands how those salespeople think.

“They know that if you lose one bottle facing (placement) on the shelves, it means so many lost case sales,” he said. The battle in the supermarkets is not just to squeeze out beer competitors, but for continued cooler space. “They have to give the supermarkets something new to sell, or they cut four feet off the beer cooler and put in more eggs and cheese,” Fremming said.

Now, the battle for space among specialty egg dealers, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

3

Does Q trump L? And other C beer questions

Local beer drinkers

In alphabetical order.

The C word would be craft.

The L word would be local.

The Q word would be quality.

Can the three co-exist? Certainly. Must they? This is the part where my head starts to hurt.

Exhibit A: “Will a bunch of terrible craft beer ruin the booming craft beer industry?” It would have been a little easier to follow if the writer had made a clearer distinction between quality and quality control, but hang in there.

Exhibit B: “The future of the craft beer industry and its ability to provide quality and variety could hinge on this.” In which guest columnist Greg Engert writes, “New influences are afoot, and perhaps none is more pervasive or more limiting than the drink-local movement.” (My emphasis.)

Engert adds this:

Now, the desire to drink local brews has reached a fever pitch, often blinding publicans and craft beer drinkers alike from what should ultimately guide our choices: Is the beer of the highest quality? Is it bereft of off-flavors? Is it delicious? In short, is it superlative and memorable?

Wait, so now quality isn’t enough? It must be of the highest quality? And aren’t there times when a beer that does not demand to be memorable, and duly entered in Untappd, better aids and abets memorable conversations or experiences?

I appreciate the importance of quality (and quality control). In the All About Beer’s “People Issue” on newsstands right now my contributions are profiles of Gary Spedding (Brewing and Distilling Analytic Services) and Alastair Pringle (who consults with food companies and breweries on all things quality). Conversations with those guys are a reminder you need to know what you are doing, but Q and QC are perfectly doable.

Which brings me to the part I really care about. Local beer makes life better. It made our 14-month road trip in 2008 and 2009 better, when it was local and we weren’t. Roger Baylor argues the matter more eloquently than I do, so I suggest reading, “The PC: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness, revisited.” He makes it clear “buying local is important both in non-beer terms, and in the specific way it impacts the craft beer ethos.”

I was going to quote him further … but you really need to read the whole thing. (I’d call it a “must read” but I don’t want any more shit from @thebeernut.)

Beer made by walking: Indigenous?

Scratch Brewing, Ava, Illinois

The Great American Beer Festival has an “Indigenous/Regional Beers” category.1 I should have mentioned that last week when I asked for reader help in understanding what makes a beer indigenous.

I figured that out Saturday when a) Alan McLeod added a rather long comment (long enough to turn into a post of his own), and b) we hung out at Scratch Brewing after a pleasant bit of bike riding in the not-too-hilly roads around Ava, Illinois.

Foraged ingredients ready to go into Scratch Brewing beerLast year at the Great American Beer Festival founder/brewers Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon and Ryan Tockstein decided if they were going to return this year they would do it the “Scratch way.” They are and they are. Scratch will be pouring five beers made with foraged ingredients and without hops. They call these gruits, which could lead to a whole other discussion that is best considered another time. The point, related to last week’s question, is that they are using indigenous ingredients.

One of the beers, called 105 is made with 105 (of course) plants and funghi from the surrounding area. To brew the beer they split the ingredients into three piles, one for bittering, one for flavoring and one for aroma, mostly flowers and leaves. (Hickory leaves add bitterness and tannins. “I had to cut down a hickoy tree that day,” Kleidon said.) The beer was fermented with Perennial Ales house yeast (technically one of their house strains, I guess), itself sourced from a Belgian saison brewery. I’ll keep the tasting note short: nicely balanced, well integrated, good. And spicy.

They’ll also be serving it at the Beer Made By Walking Festival on Oct. 3 at Wynkoop Brewing (so Friday afternoon, before the GABF evening session). It appears that tickets are still avaiable. Eric Steen, who teaches art at Portland State University and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, started BMBW in Colorado Springs in 2011 (just as we were moving from New Mexico and before I could head north on I-25 to get a closer look). It’s an intriguing concept. Invites brewers to go on nature hikes and make new beers that are inspired by plants from the trail.

More than 20 of the beers at the festival were made specifically for this event from Colorado breweries that have collaborated with BMBW. They’ve also added a “foraged and indigenous” component to our festival this year. These are beers from brewers not part of the original Beers Made By Walking program that use foraged, wild, and indigenous ingredients to create “place-based beers.” The five breweries participating are Scratch, Fullsteam, Fonta Flora, Ladyface, and Wicked Weed.

The afternoon should provide a good opportunity to consider what constitutes an indigenous beer.

*****

1 Here are the GABF guidelines: Indigenous/Regional Beers are any range of color. Clear, hazy or cloudy appearance is acceptable depending on style. Malt sweetness will vary dramatically depending on overall balance desired. Hop bitterness is very low to very high, and may be used for highlighting desired characters. This beer style commemorates combinations of ingredients and techniques adopted by or unique to a brewery’s particular region and differentiated from ingredients and techniques commonly used by brewers throughout the world. For the purpose of defining this style, uniqueness of ingredients, regional heritage, technical brewing skill, balance of character, background story defines the intent of this category. The use of hops, yeast, water, malt, or any raw grain regardless of origin does not by itself qualify beers as an Indigenous/Regional Beer. Body is variable with style. “Indigenous/Regional Beers” that are not represented elsewhere in these guidelines by a defined style could possibly be entered in such categories as Experimental, Herb & Spice, Field Beer, etc. but by choice a brewer may categorize (and enter) their beer as Indigenous/Regional Beer. Beers that represent established historical traditions should be entered in “Historical Beers” or other categories and should not be entered in Indigenous/Regional Beer category.

To allow for accurate judging the brewer must provide additional information about the entry including primarily the unique ingredients used and/
or processing which contribute to the unique qualities of the style, and information describing the beer style being emulated. This information will
help provide a basis for comparison between highly diverse entries. The information must not reveal the identity of the entering brewery. Entries not
accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.

Pabst IPA: Welcome to 2014

Ballantine IPAOK, officially, we’re talking about the return of Ballatine India Pale Ale. But Pabst owns the brand and here’s a key quote from Pabst brewmaster Greg Deuhs: “We are hoping that the current (Pabst Blue Ribbon) consumers will embrace the Ballantine IPA.” So I think there’s merit in the headline.

In any event, very good news, given that now perhaps more people will give this underappreciated India Pale Ale style a try.

News so big it warranted a story in USA TODAY with this headline: “Going hipster, Pabst resurrecting Ballantine IPA.”

Enough silliness. Ballantine India Pale Ale has an important place in American brewing history. Mitch Steele provides the details in IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. A press release announcing the revival indicates the new version will be 7.2% alcohol and contain 70 IBU. That’s pretty close to what it was right after Prohibition (7.2%, 60 IBU) and unlike what it was by the 1970s (6.7%, 45 IBU, less as the decade went on).

Also in the press release, Beuhs says: “I began this project with a simple question: How would Peter Ballantine make his beer today? There wasn’t a ‘secret formula’ in anyone’s basement we could copy, so I conducted extensive research looking for any and all mentions of Ballantine India Pale Ale, from the ale’s processing parameters, aroma and color, alcohol and bitterness specifications. Many brewers and craft beer drinkers would be impressed that the Ballantine India Pale Ale of the 1950s and ’60s would rival any craft IPA brewed today.”

He brewed more than two dozen five-gallon test batches at home.

“Unlike recreating a lost brew from long ago, I had the advantage of actually being able to speak with people who drank Ballantine back in the day,” he said for the press release. “Their feedback was crucial to ensuring that the hoppy, complex flavor that was revered for over a hundred years was front and center in my recipe.”

The new version is made with eight different hop varieties, although it isn’t clear what they are. After Prohibition the brewers distilled the oils from Bullion hops at the brewery and added them to storage tanks, its aroma making it as unique among American beers as its alcoholic strength and bitterness. Later, they ran Bullion, Brewer’s Gold or American Yakima through a hammer mill before dry hopping, grinding them to “a consistency that was a cross between corn flakes and sawdust.”

Here’s what Michael Jackson wrote about Ballantine IPA in his 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer: “Like a half-forgotten celebrity, thought by some admirers to have retired and by other to be dead, Ballantine’s has been living in quiet obscurity in Rhode island. Now, it is making something of a comeback.” He notes that brewers added Yakima and Brewer’s Gold hops in the kettle. “IPA’s colour is a rich copper in the British tradition, its head thick and rocky, its nose and palate intensely aromatic, and its body firm and full.”

Although Pabst later made a beer it called Ballantine IPA, the version served at the Great American Beer Festival in the mid-1990s did not resemble the one Jackson described. The 2014 Ballantine India Pale Ale surely will taste more like it did in 1955 than in 1995, but the IPA field is a little more crowded now. And if it really is to taste “genuine” how prominent should the citrus-pine-fruity-maybe-pungent aromas and flavors that pretty much define American IPA be? Those were not desirable back then.

Farmers didn’t begin growing the Cascade hop, the first to come out of an American hop breeding program, until 1972. Centennial was released in 1990 (although available earlier — that’s a blog post in itself), Chinook in 1985, Simcoe in 2000, Citra in 2008, El Dorado in 2011, Mosaic in 2012, Lemondrop in 2014, Equinox in 2014 — notice a trend? Ballantine IPA is stepping out of a time machine into an entirely different hop world.

Citra hops were here

Oakham Ales Brewery, Peterborough

Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker has won Champion Beer of Britain. Boak & Bailey offer some thoughts.

Oakham Ales Citra captured the silver. The picture at the top was taken at Oakham’s brewery in Peterborough last year and I wrote about the hop dust then. I don’t have anything to add, nor would I even try to match Ben McFarland’s ode to Citra.

Here’s how McFarland described the beer last October:

In a derelict warehouse somewhere in Peterborough sits the Citra hop, its arms strapped behind its back, its feet shackled to a chair built from pale malt and wheat. Surrounding it, their eyes a maniacal mix of menace and madness, are Oakham’s brewers going to work with hacksaws and hammers in each hand, the Citra squealing gooseberry, greengage and grapefruit. A superb single-hop beer.

Makes figure Boltmaker must be pretty good.

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