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The week that was: Lagunitas and sharks not jumped

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 09.14.15

It was a very noisy week, on Twitter and via my rss feed. Noise that wasn’t about things that interest me at this moment and that was so loud you couldn’t hear the other stuff. But it seems it was an Important Week, so here are a bunch of links you may or may not think belong together — followed by some “sit back and enjoy a great beer” ones.

Craft beer brewers just got downgraded to ‘sell’
[Via MarketWatch]
Lagunitas’ Magee speaks on Heineken deal and craft beer’s ‘next phase
[Via Chicago Tribune]
That Lagunitas-Heineken deal.
[Via Steve Heimoff]
Shakeup at craft beer giant Stone Brewing.
[Via Fortune]
‘Craft beer’ crumbling.
[Via I might have a glass of beer]
Signposting Craft.
[Via Hard Knot Dave]
Welcome to Starbeers.
[Via Fuggled]
The Curse of Craft strikes again.
[Via Ed’s Beer Site]
Craft Beer Sales Are At An All-Time High (Part I)
Craft Beer Sales Are At An All Time High-and why this could be scary.
[Both via The Hop Tripper]
We need to dial it back a notch.
[Via All About Beer]
And in Every Town.
[Via St. John’s Wort]

OK, a lot of words, and I am leaving most of the heavy lifting to you. My thoughts are mostly related to the last three links. Many of the “things that concern (Mitch Steele) about the future” are related to brewing and selling beer on a larger scale. Nothing wrong with that, and certainly keeping with the theme in Jason Notte’s story (first link). You can decide how it meshes with this from Greg Koch (fourth link): “There are two ways of operating a business – commodity or artisan. We operate as an artisan. We make decisions based on our passions. … Anybody that thinks commodity can operate as an artesan is ignoring the basic facts about how businesses operate.”

But as regular readers know, I cannot buy into the notion that breweries must always be growing. There is another way. Jeff Alworth’s commentary for All About Beer includes many amen sentences, words to drink by, and most importantly this: “Going forward, I’m planning to focus less on the specific products and breweries of the commercial sphere—they will come and go, inevitably—and more on the act of sharing a beer with someone I enjoy.”

And I certainly agree with this:

But beer companies? They are organs of commerce, however wonderful the brewers and publicans they employ may be. We feel good about beer, so we place that good feeling on the institution of private businesses. And in many cases, that feeling is well-placed. Breweries are collections of humans, after all. When they make good beer and create a wonderful space to enjoy it, they rightly earn our loyalty. But they’re also businesses, and sometimes their owners decide to sell to different owners—and then we have to make new judgments all over again.

But not with this:

Magee’s announcement is a spectacular Trump-like masterpiece of overstatement, and for me it was the moment Craft jumped the shark into over-seriousness.

No, Lagunitas is not a proxy for “craft.” No brewery is. And most drinkers don’t give a hoot what Tony Magee has to say. (Pausing for a moment of introspection: a lot more care than wonder about what I am thinking, so perhaps I should quit typing now).

Daria and I spent much of a week ago Saturday afternoon on the deck at Piney River Brewing, which is located on a farm 26 miles south of Plato, Missouri, a town that will remain the official “population center” of the United States until the 2020 census. Inside, the superintendent of a nearby school system was playing guitar and singing. Outside, volunteers were selling hot dogs and brats (Piney River does not serve food) to raise money for the Houston Education Foundation. Beer was the part of some conversations, not included in others. I don’t expect much changed this week. More concerned discussion about the St. Louis Cardinals’ recent slump, some comparing of notes about the kids’ new teachers, idle talk about the sudden and welcome arrival of cooler weather.

To be clear, Piney River also is not a proxy for “craft.” And it is a business. The brewery recently expanded, adding capacity that would allow it to produce 10,000 barrels a year. Founders Brian and Jolene Durham want to brew beer “in and about the Ozarks for the Ozarks.” When they first opened the tasting room one day a week (now it is open three) they expected a few friends would show up. Turns out they must have more friends than they realized, Brian said. It’s places like this that capture my attention these days, and beers that reflect where they are brewed, the where not necessarily being the brewery itself.

So there’s a reason that what Jordan St. John wrote (the final link) seems so brilliant to me.

. . . there’s the craft model. It’s not specific to craft beer. It’s a 19th century manufacturing model. It’s generational, driven possibly by the lifespan of the founder and the interest of his partners or progeny and it’s on a vastly more human scale. The smaller production level means that the owner is answerable to a community. The wealth that it generates will end up flowing back through the community in which it operates.

I’ll try to include the spirit of that thought in “Brewing Local.”

Meanwhile, those other links I promised . . .

Researcher recreates Viking beer.
The story this week I most want to read more about. [Via Knut Albert’s Beer Blog]

Young wine writers: don’t be too smart.
“Generally, in life, I reckon that less smart people are often happier. If you are too smart, I suspect that you’d find popular culture so inane as to be depressing, you’d be frustrated by the general low level of most journalism, and you’d spend a lot of the time quite bored. And as a writer you’d find that anything you wrote would only really appeal to small segment of the population.” [Via jamie goode’s wine blog]

Behind the new Abbey: How we changed the malts.
There have been several stories recently about breweries retooling their IPA recipes (for instance, this one from Bryan Roth). Tweaking recipes is hardly new — recall Ed mentioning Rochefort had begun using Aramis hops. But talking about it seems to be. I’m looking forward to this week’s discussion about choosing a new yeast. New Belgium co-founder Jeff Lebesch talked about that yeast candidly in “Brew Like a Monk.” He cultured from a Chimay bottle. “What I learned later is that Chimay could get kind of wild, so who knows how reflective what I got out of that bottle was of Chimay? I was doing all my culturing from bottles then, keeping them on plates in the house. Somewhere in the early 1990s I did a major cleanup of our yeast. It really changed the character of the beer.” [Via New Belgium Brewing]

Hype for hops helps farmers break into beer business.
This story overlooks most of the obstacles those who would grow hops outside of the Northwest face. Those challenges were at the top of my mind last week because I writing a story about it for New Brewer magazine. Perhaps that’s why when I saw the news of the Lagunitas-Heineken deal I thought immediately about the implications for hops, and in terms of real estate (because brewing is always about time and space). If Lagunitas is going to be selling two million more barrels per year, for instance, that means they could need more than three million more pounds of hops per year. That’s about 1,500 more acres of hops. Growing 1,500 more acres of corn in Iowa is not a big deal. But 1,500 more acres of hops just about anywhere, that’s a chunk. [Via CBS News]

14 Responses to The week that was: Lagunitas and sharks not jumped

  1. Alan September 14, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    We may not have seen the jumping of the shark but surely we have moved past the point where a brewery owner with branch plants and country wide sales can say this without receiving laughter in return: “We operate as an artisan. We make decisions based on our passions… ” If craft is anything, it won’t be a very mature industry until it admits it’s big craft wing is an industry. – even if an industry that can (at its best from time to time) still reflect small shop craftsmanship even thought it operates at commodity scale.

  2. Jeff Alworth September 14, 2015 at 8:36 am #

    Apparently my intention wasn’t clear in that sentence you wrote. There’s a reason that the word “craft” was capitalized. I was trying to highlight Magee’s definition of the word, which was part and parcel of the overstatement. in everything Magee has been writing about lately, he has suggested Lagunitas very mush IS a proxy for craft–and in this post he claimed to be Craft’s embodiment.

    I agree most people haven’t read him and don’t care what he says. Within the brewing industry, though, there’s a desperate fight over the word “craft.” I guess I was trying to say that I’m now dismounting that particular merry-go-round.

  3. Alan September 14, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    I understood that, Jeff. Craft as overly branded concept as opposed to as simple function.

  4. Stan Hieronymus September 14, 2015 at 9:09 am #

    On the other hand, too subtle for me. Way back, Henry King convinced large breweries to support a tax break for startups because they were good PR for the industry. Today’s Big (and even Medium) Craft breweries benefit in many ways from association from the 3,000 breweries who make less than 1,000 barrels a year. So even though I prefer too say “beer” rather than “craft beer” I don’t favor ceding it to Magee’s world view.

  5. Alan September 14, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Maybe we now need to parse the various euphemisms various folk are employing when they throw out “craft” as a term of convenience. I agree with and think we are all agreeing that “craft” ought to lean towards smaller and more personal. The problem is that big craft needs it to retain some degree of validity, however tenuous, as an artisanal product. Without abandoning the term despite having long moved away from the practice it is a major source of confusion. Perhaps as a start we can agree that any brewery considered a buyout target is too big to actually be craft.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 14, 2015 at 10:36 am #

      No matter what we agree to the WSJ and NYT are going to go on using it however they want.

  6. Jeff Alworth September 14, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Sorry, I was actually referring to Stan’s quote of me in the post. (I was undercaffeinated and writing on my phone.

  7. Alan September 14, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    I know, Jeff. I was just being clear for clarity.

    Stan, but isn’t the particular use by the NYT and WSJ just one of the usage constituencies?

    • Stan Hieronymus September 14, 2015 at 11:04 am #

      Yes, but as long as they keep using the term it will remain in force, so to speak. A personal choice is to use the one word “beer” in most cases.

  8. Alan September 14, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    So are there no legitimate uses for craft beer? I think of it as having a core true use with various abstractions and misuses orbiting it.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 14, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

      Not sure what you mean by legitimate. The Brewers Association has a well-defined definition, except you don’t agree with it. But it is clearly defined when they use it.

  9. Alan September 14, 2015 at 7:42 pm #

    No, I don’t mean legitimate in the sense of authorized even if (perhaps especially if) “authorized’ by, as you point, an interested trade association. It’s not something I can or cannot agree with. I just understand a trade association cannot “define” things, just assert things for the interests of those they represent. A resource of objectively limited use.

    By legitimate, I mean integrity – inherently authentic or organically identifiable in its native habitat. Like a Peterson guide is useful for identifying the Prothonotary Warbler in the woods. Does “craft beer” have a native habitat? I didn’t mean it as a “gotcha” question. Just is there a core existence of craft beer that underpins all the dodgy ones. A Welsh cottager in the 1870s selling in the front room? Maybe Girardin growing their own wheat for generations. Is that the lingering connotation big craft would have echoing in our minds?

    • Stan Hieronymus September 14, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

      Big Craft certainly wants to tap into that. To return to Koch, I’m not sure he was wise in saying there are only two ways – commodity or artisan. I remember visiting Stone a half dozen years ago, when as they grew brewing consistent beer in fermentation vessels of varying sizes and shapes most definitely required skill. But are artisan and skill the same thing?

  10. Alan September 15, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    Exactly, it is all a continuum. There are probable 7 meanings for “craft” and 15 for “artisans” and 187 for “skills”.

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