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Making economics interesting: Beer in the wine aisle

I’ve steered clear of the recent “wine-ification” of beer kerfuffle because I don’t have anything to say I haven’t already (New Beer Rule #7: Beer is not the new wine was written back in December of 2007, thus predating about half the breweries in the United States).

But today Mike Veseth, who I’ve mentioned here many times (including about his fine book, Wine Wars, and that he has another, Extreme Wine, on the way) asks the question: Is Craft Beer the Next Big Thing in Wine?

Remember the context and that the discussion revolves around economics. And it pretty much starts with an answer to the question he asks in the headline.

(Yes) — if you are thinking about things in terms of market spaces. The wine market space and that of craft beer are increasingly overlapping as craft beers infringe on wine’s turf (and low alcohol wines threaten to do the same for beer). And if the common battlefield isn’t huge at this point, it is certainly growing and warrants attention.

Much of it won’t appear new if you’ve been reading the beer compared to wine discussion for the past several years. But, you know, not everyone has. So it’s worth taking the time to move from Point A to Point B and so on with him. Words like innovation (“Innovation is a hot topic in the beverage business these days and craft beer presents more opportunities for innovation and product development than most wines if you are aiming at that market segment.”) and complexity are used. It’s interesting to read what somebody who does not live in the beer aisle has to write about beer.

So craft beer has a lot in common with wine and maybe a couple of advantages. With these products more widely available and a growing customer base that is ready and willing to experiment, I think it is plausible and wine and craft beer will increasingly share market space and must take that competition into account.

Something to think about.

And one quick side note:

At the end he suggests that some wineries might start to brew beer. Of course, that’s already happened. There are several wineries across the country who already do brew beer. Notably, in 1997 Korbel Champagne Cellars started Russian River Brewing in northern California and hired Vinnie Cilurzo as brewmaster. Six years later, Korbel decided to get out of the brewing business. Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo bought the brand and started a brewpub, then a production brewery, in Santa Rosa. Do you think Korbel wishes it could take that decision back?

Hold it, which Blind Pig beer was one of the first Double IPAs?

Cheers to Martyn Cornell for calling out a list of the most influential” beers that was both embarrassingly America-centric and lacking in historic perspective and replacing it with his own “The REAL 20 most influential beers of all time.”

Given that I’ve sworn off railing against lists I thought I might sit back and enjoy, but reading through more than 100 comments I’m surprised that the inclusion of Russian River Blind Pig IPA has not been questioned. Look, I love Blind Pig. It is one of my favorite beers on earth. Drink it it next to a Double IPA, even one as good as Pliny the Elder, and the phrase “less is more” makes perfect sense. But there seems to be some confusion about chickens and eggs (or, in this case, IPAs and DIPAs) at Blind Pig Brewing.

Let’s start with the entry at First We Feast (where the silliness began):

RUSSIAN RIVER BLIND PIG IPA
From: Santa Rosa, CA
Style: IPA
ABV: 6.1%
Website: russianriverbrewing.com

Joshua M. Bernstein says: “Beer geeks rightfully praise Vinnie Cilurzo’s Pliny the Elder, the double IPA against which all others are judged. Thing is, the path for Pliny was blazed by Blind Pig, an IPA brewed to compensate for a flawed brewery [the beer was originally brewed by Cilurzo at Blind Pig before he brought it to Russian River]. Blind Pig’s equipment was so antiquated, off flavors were all too common. To compensate, he added heaps of hops, setting a bitter template that brewers worldwide now follow.”

Then consider how it ends up in Cornell’s “REAL 20.”

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I’m prepared to consider, as the pioneer of “hop forward” American pale ales, and the same consideration may be due to Blind Pig IPA, the first “double” IPA.

Blind Pig Double IPAAnd now revisit the story that Cilurzo has told many times about over his first “double IPA.” He brewed a beer he called Inaugural Ale in June 1994, the very first batch he made at Blind Pig Brewing1 in Temecula, California. Indeed, he said, “Our equipment was pretty antique and crude, so I wanted to start out with something that was big and, frankly, could cover up any off flavors.”

The beer contained between 6.5 and 7% alcohol by volume and Cilurzo calculated it had 100 International Bitterness Units (the actual number would have been much lower). It was aged on oak chips for nine months and served on the brewery’s first anniversary. He had special glasses made for the occasion, with the ingredients printed on the side. He described it as a “double IPA.”

“After that, we made it a tradition to make DIPAs for our anniversary. At our second anniversary, the beer was 120 (calculated) BUs. This was almost undrinkable at the time of bottling, but there was a small market for it,” Cilurzo says. “We had a tasting room at our brewery. Customers would bring their Blind Pig growlers back for refills, etc. The last drop of Second Anniversary Ale, out of the brewery’s last keg, filled (Stone Brewing Co. co-founder) Greg Koch’s growler.”

Quite obviously, this was a very influential beer, was one of the first Double IPAs,2 and is the parent of Russian River Pliny the Elder.3

But Blind Pig IPA was a different beer — brewed after Inaugural Ale, first simply called India Pale Ale, with 6% ABV and 75 calculated IBU (Cascade and Columbus), and later They Passed This Way IPA. It was an excellent beer from the get-go, but it did not blaze the path for Pliny or other Double IPAs.

*****

1 “Vinnie Cilurzo left Blind Pig to brew at Russian River Brewing in northern California, owned at the time by Korbel (the sparkling wine producer). When Korbel decided to get out of the brewing business, Natalia and Vinnie Cilurzo bought the brand name and opened a brewpub in Santa Rosa, later a production brewery. Cilurzo continues to brew Russian River IPA, but revived Blind Pig IPA after moving to Santa Rosa.

2 Mitch Steele revisits the discussion about who brewed the first commercial IPA in “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale.” Recommended.

3 Pliny the Elder is 8% ABV and is made with several hop varieties not even available when Cilurzo first brewed Inaugural Ale.

Tick-tock, today a cover, soon a book

For the Love of Hops

I threatened to retweet the link hourly last week when Kristi Switzer posted the “For the Love of Hops” table of contents and passed along the absolutely gorgeous cover.

But then I realized I’d be all over the unfollow button if somebody else did that. So instead, here’s the cover. Book should start shipping beginning of December. You can find out more at Brewers Publications, and read endorsements from Ken Grossman, Jim Koch and Vinnie Cilurzo.

Man, I hope they know what they are talking about.

Russian River Brewing expansion update

Vinnie CilurzoOne unusual day last fall, Vinnie Cilurzo – owner, brewer and sometimes forklift operator at Russian River Brewing Co.wasn’t brewing.

He climbed on his forklift when a truck driver showed up with much-needed growlers, took phone calls, planned out the next week of brewing and bottling, and set out tasks for his assistants. All before lunch, so that in the afternoon he could work on a business plan for separate production brewery.

At one point he grabbed a 6-gallon carboy in his left hand hand and a hose in the other, quickly rinsing the glass container and dumping out the water. He swirled his right hand about the brewery, his index finger extended.

“I don’t want to give this up,” he said. “This is the thing I can contribute the most to this company.

“I don’t think I’ll ever give up brewing,” he said. “I’ve had other brewers and brewery owners tell me that eventually I’ll have to.”

He shook his head.

No.

He’s about to find out how easy it will be to run and brew at a production brewery.

He expects the brewery, also located in Santa Rosa, Calif., to be up and running in January. He talked about progress last month after making a presentation at the National Homebrewers Conference in Denver.

He and his wife and co-owner, Natalie, struck a deal in April to buy a 50-barrel brewhouse from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. They’ve acquired property not far from the brewpub and financing, and now are working their way through permitting and construction.

Not surprisingly for those who know the Cilurzos – “We’re conservative,” Vinnie said – they have a well thought out plan. A few of the basics:

Production – The goal is 6,000 barrels in 2008 and 7,000-8,000 in the next few years. “The max would be 12-to- 15,0000 barrels,” Cilurzo said. “I don’t want to get any bigger.”

The hoppy beers – Pliny the Elder (an Imperial/Double IPA) and Blind Pig IPA will be bottled for the first time. “But I don’t know how much Elder we’ll ship in bottles.”

Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA) will be brewed once a year and in 2008 will be draft only.

Cilurzo hasn’t settled on a bottle size for Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder, but is determined not to sell his beers in six packs. He prefers a 750ml-capped bottle or a 16-ounce bottle for those beers.

The non-barrel ‘-tion’ beers – Redemption (a monks’ strength beer at 4.8% abv), Perdition (a Belgian-inspired pale ale) and Salvation (dark and strong) should all be nearly as easy to find as the flagship Damnation (strong and golden). Cilurzo particularly wants to promote Redemption. “It’s everything I believe in, that we need more lower alcohol Belgian-style beers,” he said. “It is something we do at the pub.”

The brewery will us increase production of Santification, a beer 100 percent fermented with Brettanomyces.

All of those are sold in corked and caged 750ml bottles.

The barrel beers (also ‘-tion’) – The barrel room will have the a capacity to produce 560-plus beer barrels (31 gallons each) per year. Cilurzo recently picked up additional used Pinot Noir barrels (for Supplication) and 100 used Cabernet Sauvignon barrels (American oak). He hasn’t decided what fruit he will blend with a base beer (and of course wild yeast) in those barrels. Affordable used Chardonnay barrels are getting harder to find, so there may be less Temptation in the future.

(Just to be clear, when brewers refer to barrels they mean a measure of 31 gallons. Most wine barrels hold 225 liters, a little less than 60 gallons.)

Then there’s Beatification. Once barrels give up their wine character they’ll be used to age Beatification, which is spontaneously fermented using native yeast from within the brewery. Instead of calling it a Lambic, Cilurzo has dubbed it a Sonamic. A single batch may take two years to produce, and multiple batches may be blended for a bottling.

The standard size for the barrel beers is 375ml (again corked).

Distribution – Currently, Russian River sells beer only in California and Pennsylvania. Virginia and the District of Columbia will soon receive beer along with Pennsylvania (Masschusetts would likely be the next state added in the East). In the West, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington will be the first markets.

One final quick prediction: None will get as much Russian River beer as they want.

Another Top 10: Most influential people

Rick Sellers of Pacific Brew News Blog has taken our ’10 Most’ conversation another direction:

Ten People Who Shaped the US Beer Scene.

Certainly a conversation I plan to jump into in his comments section after I get a little work done. (OK, I had to leave one right off – Michael Jackson.)

Here’s his list:

1 – Fritz Maytag
2 – Jack McAuliffe
3 – Fred Eckhardt
4 – Charlie Papazian
5 – Bert Grant
6 – Garrett Oliver
7 – Jim Koch
8 – Ken Grossman
9 – Tie Vinnie Cilurzo & Sam Calagione
10 – Empty. “I would like to see . . . someone who makes the beer bar a great place to be today, those who have redefined what a Beer Bar can be.”

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