The Firkin for August 2019

Before you do “hard” seltzer

Despite my anti-“hard” beverage stance, I am not against a brewery testing or going all in on seltzers, coffees and their ilk.  But I do hope that these breweries are sitting down and analyzing the decision before embarking on it. First though, you need to back up to before the brewery opened.

There will always be a tension between what the brewery wants to brew and what the customer wants to buy.  Finding a balance (the eye of the storm) in the middle is difficult.  It is made much easier if two questions are asked though:

What Kind of Brewery do we want to be? And What Do Our Customers Want?

The first is the more fun and easier of the two questions.  Customers wants are moving targets and hard-earned affection can be easily lost even if you do everything right. But if you are true to who you are, the fans will realize that even if only subconsciously.

So, if you want to jump on the “hard” seltzer train you need to ask, is it on point for your brand.  Can you bring your vibe to it?  Maybe you use local fruit, maybe you use herbs, maybe they are named after employees or customers.  Then, are your customers asking for it.  Maybe this is an annual summer fling, where you do a few during the hot months.  Or you have one seasonal seltzer on tap throughout the year.  Make sure though that this is being done for Customers and not for “customers”. 

The difference is that the former are your regulars, your unpaid cheerleaders.  The latter are there for a day or are social media trend.  This is not to imply that trends are to be avoided but you do need to strike that balance between chasing the new, new thing and creating that new, new thing.  It is painfully easy to spot when a product is launched to make money for the rest of the company to live on vs. a product that takes off and is actually part of a portfolio of drinks.  805 and Hazy Little Thing from Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada leap to mind.

This leads to one final question that needs to be asked and discussed.  What happens when the “hard” trend starts fading or when the market becomes glutted with the stuff.  Because both of those economic factors will happen.  The supply and demand will find their equilibrium and it will be lower.  Will making the “hardened” beverage still be worth it in those circumstances?  Or will your brewery already be onto the next trend?

…and So Can Writers

Like Hollywood, where one bad volcano movie begets another or a Sharknado leads to The Meg, beer writers fall into the follow the next tiny topic off the cliff all to easily.

The latest is the “Exploding Can” coming to a ‘fridge near you! You need to say that last bit in the movie trailer voice.

I have not had an exploding can nor a bottle in 2018. For that matter, I haven’t had a gusher since 2017 and that was from a corked and caged bottle. And looking back at my drinking history (yes, I keep one but that is a different post topic), I haven’t been a slouch in the drinking department. I certainly haven’t played it safe.

Now, I haven’t gotten any word on how many cans or bottles have done this nor do I know how you would nail down those statistics but it is another proof, to some in beer world that independent beer is not taking quality seriously.

This is usually followed by the old bromide that the macro beers should be cited for their quality control measures when, in fact, it is simply consistency control. If they could make and sell an even more flavorless beer for cheap, they would. Where is the quality there? Yes, most small breweries don’t have a QC staff. Yes, imperfect beers get by or are allowed by but I posit that, that is OK and that a good percentage of the people drinking craft beer have a tolerance level built in to their opinions. Quite frankly between buying a QC lab or buying health care for employees, I woul say, take the latter.

Secondly, there seem to be writers out there who are drinking a lot of exploding and bad beer that I am not encountering in my travels. I can’t imagine that I am that much better at picking better beers than people who write and edit beer magazines. But apparently, I am. Because any opportunity to bring up anecdotal or slim actual evidence seems to be enough for them to think this flimsy house of craft to be brought low.

There is a lot for craft / independent beer to work on (again another blog post) but frankly, most beers are just fine. Not fantastic and not faulted. Just fine. And I am more than willing to trade that for the innovation and risk taking that will bring me those transcendent beers that make me happy when I find them.

So, write about the exploding cans, the bad beers but also write about the other beers too. Keep perspective and don’t oversell the issue.

Peel the Label – What Might Come to Pass

Since today is Back to the Future Day, the day where Marty McFly saves the day with the help of Doc Brown and some Gigawatts, I thought it appropriate to write down what I think are trends that I see developing.

Bad Mouthing Beer Quality – We all know that not all beer is created equal. Some is bad. But we all will soon hear more and read more about the bad beer in the coming months. The Brewer’s Association gave it’s tacit approval when it exhorts members to be quality conscious and that trickles through the system to the point where names start getting named. Up until now, most criticism is done on the low-down. Either because the community is too tight-knit to criticize or because the community is too small and needs encouragement. As each craft beer scene grows and matures, the community ties fray and the need for “any” brewery is curtailed. I think the open naming of breweries to avoid will become more brazen.

More Private Equity Money in the System – Brewery owners are paying attention. If you want to protect your brand as craft, then you had better avoid the full fire sale. Not only will it get you kicked to the Brewer’s Association curb, you also get a social media earful of how horrible you are as a person to sell your brewery. Your better options are selling part of the company (The Founders-Lagunitas Way), partnering with high class – large pockets breweries (The Duvel Way) or getting private equity (The Banker Way). Beer Geeks tend to be myopic unless you are ABInBev or SABMiller so you can slide Private Equity through without too much grumbling because most people aren’t reading the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal that regularly. More will head down that road.

Hops, Hops and Hops – This train just keeps rumbling. The demand just keeps growing like new hop varietals. Session IPA’s were the it beer last year and I do believe that we are due for another style for GABF to consider next year. I don’t know what it will be but I have a feeling light and hoppy ain’t over yet. I would not be at all surprised to see Hoppy Gruits. But a better bet might be hoppy Belgian Singles or hoppy ambers.

Less Fests – There are festivals galore but I think that the bloom is off the rose for the general all-purpose festival. That doesn’t mean that they won’t sell if done properly because there is a solera effect of new people becoming craft converts and getting excited about a festival that a jaded scribe like myself has no time for but I think the boom cycle is done and we are moving into the long tail of decline. I have been to some events (even good ones) where the crowds have been sparse. By now, especially in L.A., the festivals to go to have been pretty much set in concrete. Others can be skipped unless they have a theme or idea that really grabs the imagination.

I have no crystal ball but in talking to people and attending events and reading, these are the items that I think just might happen. Talk to me next year at this time to see if I am crazy.

Peel the Label is an occasional series where I opine about the big picture of craft beer and blogging without photos, videos or links.

Session # 40 – Session beer

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Session Beer is the topic for June.

There are a thousand ways to approach this. What is your definition of a session beer? Is it, as Dr. Lewis suggested at the Craft Brewers Conference this year, “a pint of British wallop” or is your idea of a session beer a crisp Eastern European lager, a light smoky porter, a dry witbier, or even a dry Flemish sour?

Is it merely enough for a beer to be low alcohol to be considered a session beer, or is there some other ineffable quality that a beer must hold in order to merit the term? And if so, what is that quality? Is it “drinkability”? Or something else?

What about the place of session beer in the craft beer industry? Does session beer risk being washed away in the deluge of extreme beers, special releases, and country-wide collaborations? Or is it the future of the industry, the inevitable palate-saving backlash against a shelf full of Imperial Imperials?

What are some of your favorite session beers? When and where do you drink them? If you’d like, drink one and review it.

I am generally a positive craft beer guy. There is too much good stuff out in the craft beer universe to drink for me to rant and/or rave about a real or perceived slight.

But, (and you knew that was coming), I keep waiting for the Session beer train to pull into the station but it is the little engine that just can’t quite make it. The trend just can’t get enough momentum. And as much as I would like to blame the “Imperial Imperials”, I think it is another pair of reasons that stall this category.

First is the puritanical streak our country holds onto with a firm grip and that is inadvertently supported by mainstream water lager advertising. Our culture looks down on massive excess in drinking or eating as much as we can’t stop massively eating and drinking.

Sitting around and having not just a beer but multiple beers while watching the big game or for no reason other than friendship on a Saturday afternoon is considered the realm of the frat boy, the obnoxious lout or the falling down drunk.

There will always be a push for moderation and anything that talks about multiple beers will run afoul of the more extreme forces of “anti”. Major advertising reinforces that with sometimes funny but always wild and crazy party life that is enjoyed by people who buy cases and cases of their low ABV, low flavor near beer. Half the country wants to get their drink on while the other half wants them to shut up and behave like adults. Session beer gets tarred with the brush of excess.

This leads me to my second wild theory. The image of the beer guzzling becomes linked to a certain neanderthal beer drinker. Just as cans were considered gauche and too tied to the image of industrial beer, session beers are considered too macro and not craft or artisan.

Maybe this stems from not wanting to compete against such a massive marketing machine and entrenched consumer buying patterns but I think some brewers and beer geeks have tried to distance themselves from session to avoid seeming too mainstream. It’s easier to have one or two hoppy IPA’s and maintain street cred then it is to drink a few rounds of a session beer that has the appearance of big business due to it’s ABV.

To end on a more positive note, cans are well into becoming cool again. So maybe there is still hope for the humble session beer. Maybe the session itself needs to be separated from the session beer to fully blossom. But I am not going to hold my breath, I am heading to the store to get a case of Full Sail Session in the stubbie bottles.

A Little Bit softer now…

from K.M. Weaver at the HopPress blog
“Over the last ten years, about 30-40% of new international beers have had alcohol levels with 5.5%+ ABV, while the proportion of U.S. beers with this characteristic has steadily risen to nearly twice that. Today, more than 70% of new American beers are these bigger, bolder, less-sessionable beers.

In 2009, the average ABV of new U.S. beers rose beyond 7% for the first time. New non-U.S. beers, in comparison, have continued to hover around 5.5%.”

These numbers are sure to intrigue the beer geek crowd because they put a number to alot of anecdotal evidence seen at breweries across the country.

What I would like to see is the future of this graph. Because I think the peak has been reached. Numbers will drop because there is a ceiling to the ABV before it’s not beer anymore. (For me that is 31%). My guess is that the median will drop to about 6%. Session beers and extreme beers will occupy swaths to the left and right but the sweet spot in the middle will be the king IPA. A trend that I don’t see leaving anytime soon.