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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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What’s Big Beer? What’s Big Craft?


A nice piece of reporting by Eric Gorski last week provoked still more excellent questions from Alan McLeod, but before getting to those links I’m wishing I could find entries defining Big Beer and Big Craft in my beer dictionary. Steve Hindy used the first in his oft-cited New York Times op-ed piece, Free Craft Beer!, and regular readers of A Good Beer Blog will be familiar with the latter. History suggests asking for narrow definitions causes mostly pain (see craft beer), but I’m feeling a bit confused.

Does American craft brewing have a quality problem? and One Key Way Big Craft And Small Brewers Differ. You couldn’t turn around at the Craft Brewers Conference last week without bumping into somebody with a beard or somebody talking about the importance of quality (sometimes one in the same). As well as examining those concerns, Gorski’s story points out that the cost of quality control and quality assurance are not a barrier to entry. And quite often during presentations (there were 10 at a time) on the technical brewing track included useful checklists (vital equipment, what can be checked in house, which is better tested by an outside lab, etc.) and information about the importance of in-house sensory panels.

Of course, quality beer and “good beer” (not more capital letters and pleas for definitions) are not one in the same. Which is why you should also read the second link.

[Via The Denver Post and A Good Beer Blog]

Vive La Difference? Good question — and surely related to the concept of Big Craft — as still another brewery from the West goes shopping for an East Coast home: “There is a question though that nags away in the back of my head, would it not be utterly disingenuous to consider Stone a ‘local’ brewery, or their beer as ‘local’?” [Via Fuggled]

Complacency and “craft” in Munich. If that headline alone isn’t enough to get you to click the link you must not be a regular here. [Via I might have a glass of beer]

Sierra Nevada founder sits down to talk beer. Passed along because as much as been written recently about Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada’s new North Carolina brewery there are still things to learn. Like that he often slept in a trailer on site while the brewery was being built. [Via Blue Ridge Now]

Terroir? What Exactly Do You Mean? Harvey Steinman might think he’s writing only about wine, but there are clues here to help to sort out the notion of beer from a place. “Is terroir about the basic material, or how it expresses itself in the wine?” And, “Some want to include ‘the work of man’ in their definition of terroir. But that’s regional style, not an expression of terroir.” [Via Wine Spectator]

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‘The original craft beer’ – Guesses?


Brown’s beer: How mainstream is craft beer? There’s that “c” word again, and a reminder it means something a little different in every country. You’ll need to read the article to get the background on “world beer” but this likely makes since to you anyway: “So now we’re starting to see the same aggressive obfuscation in craft that we got with world beer. Stella Artois was originally ‘crafted’ for Christmas. Guinness is privately referring to itself as ‘the original craft beer’.” [Via London Loves Business]

Ground zero for beer? I ask this question seven years ago. I thought about because I just read that the Craft Brewers Conference will attract 8,000 attendees this week. Many international visitors are already in Denver to judge the World Beer Cup before the conference starts officially on Wednesday. Sixteen hundred attended CBC in Austin in 2007, compared 1,950 when Austin previously hosted the conference in 1995. That’s a five-fold increase in seven years, more modestly four times growth in 19 years — whatever that means.

What the return of Yuengling to Boston means to smaller breweries. Just a “fling” or something with larger implications? [Via The Boston Globe]

The Actual Multi-Dimensional Beer Universe. This will either make you think hard, or give up thinking altogether because it is kinda hard. [Via A Good Beer Blog]

Superstar winemakers. Turns out the notion is relatively new – “Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.” [Via Steve Heimoff]

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Colorado IPA? Wild? Cakey? Caramelly?


- Firkfest 2014 Press Roundup./ I was reminded just how crazy big and different American beer has become last week in Anaheim, California. I walked through swarms of people in mouse ears and other Disney wearables, on their way to Disneyland obviously, as I headed north a couple of miles to the first Firkfest, and thus I might have been disoriented when I arrived. It was educational on two levels — first for the variety of choices, both from breweries I am familiar with and others seemingly brand new; second, you’ll if you visit the links in the roundup, for how many people may write about, and post pictures from, just about any beer event these days. Without restirring the discussion of what the word movement in “craft beer movement” means this level of participation does seem to suggest a “movement” of some sort. And I was introduced to still another blog, Cask LA Ale, which provides regular updates about what’s available on cask in the LA area. A big and different beer world, indeed. [Via OC Beer Blog]

- Drinking In A Place – Just Differently. As the following two links illustrate, I’m always up for reading about about place — particularly when memories are thrown into the mix. But as a point of order, from the get-go discussions about the importance where a beer is enjoyed have always been part of the marching orders here. [Via A Good Beer Blog]

- Rise of our regional style: Colorado Wild IPA. I’m not sure how I feel about the notion that Florida Weisse is a new regional style, but whenever I see the words “regional” and “style” together I feel compelled to pass the link along to Jeff Alworth, which I did on Twitter last week. Tweets went all sorts of directions from there. And eventually there was this . . . [Via Focus on the Beer]

- Beer Styles in Their Native Habitat. At the end the discussion is no longer about “Wild IPA” but a statement that Colorado has “a particular take on the IPA, which is thick and cakey and super caramelly.” Is that true? [Via Beervana]

- Beer Homerism, Beer Lists, and the Tidal Wave of Trendiness. “The subject of this post is a couple of current phenomena that have nagged at the edges of the beer culture for a while now and I’m fairly sure that my views on them are going to offend some people.” It rambles, but there’s something sensible about somebody who writes, “Don’t, for that matter, quote ME about anything I write unless you’ve got a little history with [me].” And I have to include one more sentence, “Those beer lovers who actually know beer and don’t obey the current Buzz are, even now, being forced to step out of the way of the roving trendies or be trampled.” [Via Seattle PI]

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Friday beer: Will the real ‘blueberry hop’ please stand up?

If I had a blueberry anosmia1 this would make more sense, but I can identify blueberries in a blind tasting, or blueberry muffins or even blueberry beer. So why, when I smell a beer rich with Mosaic hop aroma don’t I perceive blueberries? Or when I take a deep whiff of Sierra Nevada Harvest Single IPA with what the label calls “Yakima #291″ hops”?

This really doesn’t bother me much. It could be worse. One-third of the population is blind to beta-ionone, a compound with a floral note particularly prominent in Saaz hops. I’m not in that group. It would suck not to be able to fully appreciate Saaz.

But why did the guy pouring in a Santa Barbara area wine tasting room last week say, “Now, Mosaic, there’s a blueberry hop”? It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard somebody say that. Or how about this description of the Harvest Single IPA at the Sierra Nevada web site? “Blueberry in a beer! The consensus? That’s flavor fit for a bottle.” OK, it doesn’t really bother me that much. There are plenty of reasons that smell is referred to as the “most enigmatic of our senses.”

But it’s interesting you and I might rate blueberry aroma equally intense in one case, say a pie, and differently in another — simply because other aroma compounds are present. Before I head down that rabbit hole, back to the Harvest Single IPA, which has been hard to come by in our parts but we found easily last week in California.

As much as the mysteries of aroma fascinate me, so do the ins and outs of hop genetics. (So this might be the time you want to gently ease your way to another ready.) Mosaic is a daughter of Simcoe and a male plant called 986-2. Simcoe is a bit of a pungent brute, its aroma a calling card for American-style IPAs, sometimes called dank and, depending on your genetic disposition, downright “catty.”

HBC 291 — the name it was patented under, but not the name it will have if it goes into wider production — is a daughter of Glacier and a male called 9902(2). Glacier is much more demure than Simcoe, though not nearly as popular. Farmers planted about 1,260 acres of Simcoe in 2013, compared to less than 100 of Glacier. Its stone fruit character, notably peach, apparently is not as hip. Glacier is a daughter of the endangered French variety Strisselspalt, one of those hops I fear we will miss deeply when she is gone.

Before I lapse into further melancholy, the point here is that two very different mothers produced hops that when introduced into beer2 contribute to a blueberry aroma. Or don’t.


1 Anosmia in a condition in which a person with an otherwise normal sense of smell cannot detect a specific type of odor molecule. It may also describe a complete loss of smell, which may or may not be temporary. The former is rather common, the latter depressing and much more rare.

2 HBC 291 was one of the hops available to evaluate last year when I spoke at Hop Union’s Hop & Brew School. It is important to remember that what you smell from a raw hop doesn’t necessarily translate into the same aroma in a beer. The interaction with yeast changes compounds. Anyway, HBC was the most pleasant of the varieties we smelled, HBC 438 as the most divisive (I was in the “love it” camp), and Mosaic sucked, reeking of diesel fuel (not indicative of the overall crop). My notes for HBC 291 describe it as “really clean, floral/spicy, a herbaceous note reminiscent of Centennial.” Still nothing about blueberry.

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