None dare call It craft.

When John Holl left legitimate journalism and entered the strange world of beer writing a couple of years back, we all had to raise our games more than a bit. Yes, he’s that good and when he has something to say, it’s wise to listen. Holl is now the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the new issue (just in the mail, on newsstands this coming week, I’d guess) cover-features his editorial suggesting that we at least consider the abolition of the word “craft” as a beer descriptor to the degree that is practical and possible.

There is a word that is used often in the beer world, but means different things to different people and organizations. The use of this particular word has seemingly muddied the water of the industry, causing confusion, blind passion and confrontation. The word, of course, is craft.

Overall, the word has become co-opted. While it is about beer, it’s also about marketing. Now the so-called big guys are in on the game, knowing that there is a trend these days toward small and local with certain products. That’s why we see brands like Blue Moon, owned by MillerCoors, using the term “Artfully Crafted” in advertisements. Conversely, Samuel Adams uses the line “For the Love of Beer” in its advertisements, with no mention of the word craft.

Now, here’s the tricky part. What does it mean?

For the Brewers Association (BA), a trade group, it means “promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” according to its mission statement. It has promoted the word craft and placed guidelines as to what craft means as a way to define its dues-paying members.

And therein lies the reason why, after having wrestled with thoughts similar to Holl’s for months, I think that the term “craft” is both appropriate and necessary in industry vocabulary. For one thing, If the primary organization devoted to supporting a significant and (the) fastest growing segment of an industry chooses that identifier, it seems a bit petty to argue otherwise. For another, its absence would leave a  definite void. I write regularly for two of the major trade magazines in the beer world and there has to be a  shared terminology which is generally accepted in order to report on and discuss the business of beer. “Craft” is an identifiable industry segment for business and economics writers around the world. Just “beer” cannot replace it.

As for “it’s also about marketing,” aren’t “extreme,” “session” and similar descriptors which are amorphous and often contradictory equally so? And is marketing a bad thing? Bad or misleading marketing surely, but just trying to sell your product?

For some consumers and brewers, it’s the battle of “us vs. them,” with people saying that the larger breweries make “crap” or “poor-quality” beer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those brewers use the same ingredients as smaller brewers to make the same final product: beer. And while some consumers are throwing stones at large corporations that make technically perfect beer, they are give a pass to some smaller breweries that fall under the craft banner but make and release clearly infected or inconsistent beers. Why?

It seems to me that the paragraph above is a commentary on the hypocrisy of “some consumers and brewers” and really has nothing to do with whether or not craft is a useful identifier.

One word shouldn’t be a dividing point. Ultimately, it should be about the beer in the glass, and whether it tastes good to the individual drinker. In the same way that the word microbrew is still batted around, we don’t honestly believe that the word craft will disappear anytime soon, but we do believe it’s time to have a conversation about what it really means. Is it a helpful word that makes beer better, or is it necessary at all?

I’d suggest that word  cannot “make beer better” no matter how helpful it might be. My answer, as should be obvious at this point, is that this particular word is clearly necessary, at least until and unless someone comes up with an alternative which fills all the requirements.

Here’s another perspective to consider. In Craft Beer Daily’s story about Holl’s editorial, editor Jenn Litz-Kirk quoted New Belgium founder Kim Jordan on her interpretation of “craft,” suggesting that that it is about the brewers and not the beer:

“I think the BA was prescient in understanding it was really going to be important to know who craft brewers were. If we say that part of what has made the beer industry exciting in the last 10 years is craft brewers, and that that spark and energy that they’ve provided to the beer category is what has made us flat rather than down, then we all benefit from the notion of a connection between beer drinkers and craft brewers…So I’d suggest we all benefit from that. I do understand there is that feeling of haves, have nots. And sometimes there are consequences that everyone wishes could be different. At the same time, I think it matters.”

As do I. I honestly believe that this is a classic solution-without-a-problem issue.

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Posted in Beer History, Beer Writing, Breweries, Brewers, Brewers Association, Brewpubs, Brewspapers, Craft Beer, Media, Nanobreweries, Publicans, Retailers & Wholesalers | Leave a comment

A-B’s craft acquisition strategy, per Beer Business Daily.

This was Harry Schuhmacher’s evaluation in a special late addendum to yesterday’s issue of his daily newsletter:

There are two common denominators underlying A-B’s strategic choice of craft brewers they purchase (and make no bones about it, there’s a strategy behind everything A-B does): 1. They are local or regional (i.e. not national), and 2. They have brewpubs and/or taprooms.

The strategic rationale for the first criterion is obvious: They don’t want to have to fix (many) distributor footprint issues and they can roll out the brands nationally for quick growth and a decently quick payback.

The strategic rationale for the second criterion allows them to deal directly with the consumer and bypass distributors, giving them a fairly significant on-premise presence in those markets, which could also create learnings in that important channel. In fact, this deal will make A-B one of the largest brewpub/taproom operators in the country, further blurring the lines between the three tiers and effectively making A-B a leader in all three tiers : They are the largest brewer, the largest distributor (arguably, Reyes may have inched them out), and one of the largest brewpub/taproom operators. The blurring the lines of the tiers continues apace.

People had said, you can tell where A-B will make its next craft purchase, just look at a map. Texas and Florida stick out like sore thumbs as possibilities, but Texas restricts on-premise sales and Florida is threatening to kill it. A-B is tending to so far stick to states which have lax brewpub and taproom laws.

I don’t see Pennsylvania meeting those lax law criteria, but let’s pretend it does. If A-B were to make a move on a brewery in this region, which one would it be? Make part of your own criteria that the selected target’s ownership would be inclined to listen.

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Posted in Beer Laws, Big Blands, Breweries, Brewers, Brewpubs, Nanobreweries, Opinion, Other Voices | 1 Comment

The Age of Innocence is over.

Anheuser-Busch is buying Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co, it was announced today.

This is an edited sentence from a story I’ve written for the upcoming issue of Ale Street News (out in early February) about what happened in 2014 and what that might portend for the future:

Three well known and respected breweries—Founders, Blue Point and 10 Barrel—were bought out entirely or in part this past year… [and] Southern Tier, Sweetwater and Uinta all sold partial stakes in their businesses to private equity firms.

We are entering the decade when a lot of the original craft brewery founders will be making major business decisions for the future, whether as part of an exit strategy or to find a way to continue to compete and grow successfully in a rapidly changing market. They have every right to do these things–indeed, it might be considered a dereliction of duty not to consider all the options–but a lot of true believers are not going to be happy or accept it well.

We’re all growed up now.

 

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Would that I could get there.

My last post (scroll down), which reprinted a “Best of” list I did a decade and a half ago and in which I named Yards Old Ale as my Beer of the Year, brought this response from the brewery’s Deputy of Art and Marketing Gina Marie Vasoli:

Hope the new year is faring well for you so far. I saw your nostalgic post on Liquid Diet and wanted to let you know that Old Ale just so happens to be on cask at Kite & Key right now. Tom and Jon got together a couple months back to brew it for fun. Good timing for you!

I can’t get there for several reasons, not least of which are a plethora of deadlines, but some of you reading this might want to try. The fact that this batch was brewed by brewery founders Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit makes it especially cool.

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Posted in Beer Buddies, Breweries, Brewers, Cask Ale, Good Old Days, Nostalgia, Passing on the Word, Publicans, Way Back When, Well Done | 1 Comment

Remember what I said back in 1999?

Yeah, me neither, but I when ran across this year’s end awards list from those ancient times, I figured it might be fun reading for those of you who kept visiting these environs over my nearly month-long silence. I’ll try not to let that happen again. I have resisted the urge to edit out any of the embarrassing parts of what follows (you’ll know them when you see them) and ask you to be as merciful as you can.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BREWER(S) OF THE YEAR/BREWERY OF YEAR: Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski/Downingtown’s Victory Brewing Company. A repeat win for the pride of Downingtown and first time individual honors for Ron and Bill, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Victory is best known for its signature HopDevil Ale, which gets raves from experts across the nation, but Storm King Imperial Stout and Prima Pils are my personal favorites among the dozen or so world-class Victory brews. And I hereby admit to anticipating a mutually beneficial relationship with the wonderful new Belgian Tripel-style Golden Monkey this coming winter. The most serious criticism you can mount against Victory is that the brewpub suffers a bit of ambiance-deficiency. We can live with that. The best we’ve got and lucky to have ‘em.

BEER OF THE YEAR: Yards Old Ale. Okay, Yards ESA is the sine qua non of Philly brews, ground zero for the craft beer revolution of the past half decade, but when I had to make a choice, I gave my heart to this tasty and extraordinary ale during the winter past. It was the first quarter keg I put on my home dispensing system in January and I haven’t regretted that for a minute. Old Ale is already penciled in for a return engagement this year…unless brewmaster Tom Kehoe decides to treat the world to a batch of his superb Entire Porter to celebrate the Millennium. In that case, I’ll have to make a tough choice or double the taps here at Liquid Diet Central. Decisions, decisions.

STEALTH BREWERY AWARD: Flying Fish Brewing Company. The Fish slides along smoothly through the increasingly troubled waters of local craft brewing, moving confidently just below the surface while beer fanciers concentrate on the latest Big Beer or wait for the local houses of cards to fall. Owner Gene Muller, head brewer Rick Atkins and their crew just keep on doing what they do well and increasing sales. Flying Fish is the first local brewery (and one of only 20 from the U.S.) invited to pour at the famous Great British Beer Festival in London this very week, so somebody’s taking notice.

THE HAND OF GOD AWARD: Sam Calagione. After we made Dogfish Head’s Main Man our Brewer of the Year last August, you’d think he’d have reached the apex of his profession, wouldn’t you? But Sam goes Really Big Time this month with a two-page accolade from international Beer Maven Michael Jackson in the September issue of All About Beer. Jackson recounts a visit to Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub and along the way gives the world a striking portrait of Sam the Poet, Sam the Philosopher, Sam the Hunk and, oh yeah, Sam the Brewer. Trust me, when Jackson speaks, it’s gospel for geeks. A star is born.

BUSINESSMAN OF THE YEAR: Henry Ortlieb. There are those who think they can succeed with blather rather than beer. They are convinced that promising phantom brewpubs and talking IPOs rather than IPAs will somehow bring them success. Henry Ortlieb, on the other hand, keeps his mouth shut until the deal’s done. In recent months, he’s purchased the Dock Street label and product line, gotten back the right to use his own name on his beers and put both Dock Street Amber and the new Henry Ortlieb’s Select Lager in cans as well as bottles, the first local micro to open that potentially profitable door. Poor Henry’s Brewpub has hosted everything from Golden Gloves boxing to a massive beer festival and collectibles show. Running a business like a business. What a concept.

BEER EVENT OF THE YEAR: Manayunk Brew Fest. Yeah, yeah, in the end festivals are supposed to be all about the beer. Beers you’ve never had before. Beers served just the way they were in the Good Old Days. Beers….hey, in the beer festival crazy Spring, the events all ultimately run together into visions of a thousand little two-ounce tasting cups. But an afternoon outdoors on the Manayunk Brewpub deck overlooking the Schuylkill on the most beautiful day of the whole year? If they can come up with that kind of weather every year, count me in.

PUB OF THE YEAR: Monk’s Café. No contest. Monk’s is increasingly mentioned as one of the best beer bars in the country and who are we to argue? Heck, we said it first. The usual selection is mind-blowing, often featuring brews available nowhere else. The food is as good as the beer (I have so far resisted the urge to dab the addictive bourbon mayonnaise on the exquisite chocolate cake, but I figure it’s just a matter of time.) Owners Tom Peters and Fergus Carey are generous, gregarious and just a little bit wacky. The only tough part is deciding whether to sit at the up front bar and watch the world go by or head for the rear room where inviting tap handles sing their siren call. I figure, why not do both?

PUB OF THE YEAR (SUBURBS): The Drafting Room (Exton). I used to have this improbable vision of a top-notch bar and restaurant out here in the ‘burbs where lucky folks could readily quaff pints of the finest micros and imports. Then I discovered that just such a place already exists, an oasis nestled in the Colonial 100 shopping strip along Route 100 North. Kudos to owners Howard and Drew Weintraub and manager Patrick Mullin, who even list the date of each keg’s tapping so customers know just how fresh the beers are. A bit of paradise in a strip mall.

BREWPUB OF THE YEAR: Dock Street Brasserie. Brasserie? They’re not calling a brewpub any longer? Is that a good sign? Not to worry, friends. What is now the city’s oldest surviving brewpub is still turning out as broad and tasty a selection of on-site brews as you’ll find anywhere and the food is better than ever. If you haven’t been back in a while, you’re missing out on a Good Thing.

DISTRIBUTOR OF THE YEAR: The Beverage Store (Wayne). It’s not quite the same as Cheers, but chances are this is the distributorship where everybody will know your name. Of course, “everybody” is pretty much just owner Matt Guyer and trusty sidekick Matt Sauerbrey, but that’s enough. These guys know beer, they like beer, and they promote beer. A great selection, including some brands you won’t find elsewhere. If there’s a better place to grab a case or a keg, they must be giving it away for free.

RISING STAR (Brewer): Dan Weirback. Is it something in the water once you get past city limits? Victory out in Downingtown, Dogfish Head down in Delaware and Weyerbacher Brewing up north in Easton all seem to have thrived out in the wilderness. Now Weyerbacher’s Dan Weirback, I swear, brews more different beers than any one man should attempt and pulls it off. From Raspberry Stout to the recently introduced Hops Infusion, it all works. The Weyerbacher Brewpub, next to the brewery, makes you wish you lived in the neighborhood. Keep an eye on this boy.

RISING STAR (Pub): O’neal’s Saloon. Tom Mooney made no secret of his intentions for his family’s South Philadelphia bar when he took it over a while back. He wanted O’neal’s to be a “good beer bar.” He added taps, expanded to the second floor and doubled the bottled beers available. Mooney constantly promotes local brews with tastings and other events and has some of the neighborhood folks drinking Belgians these days. There’s good beer on South Street again. Okay, half a block off. Close enough for gummint work.

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Savage Beer. With the Dock Street brand name and logo sold off to Henry Ortlieb’s Original Philadelphia Brewing Company, Dock Street Brasserie head brewer Eric Savage decided to come up with a new beer he’d market under his own name. Good thing he wasn’t named “Lousy,” eh? Savage Beer has been an instant hit and its distinctive tap handle in the shape of an ancient spiked battle mace has become a familiar sight at better bars since Spring. A bottled version (brewed at Yards) should be hitting the shelves about now.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND: Grey Lodge Pub. The clever li’l publican known as Scoats has done the seemingly impossible over the past five years, turning a former neighborhood tappie on Frankford Avenue into a good beer oasis in, of all places, the Northeast. Firkin Fridays, featuring fresh casks gravity tapped atop the bar, have become a Grey Lodge institution, along with the Tomato Pie, a pizza with the cheese beneath the sauce long before the Big Boys thought of it. Well worth a visit. Okay, nobody goes to the Northeast just for a beer, but if you’re ever in the area….

HAIL AND FAREWELL: Sam Adams Brewhouse. The city’s first modern brewpub (1989) did more with extract brewing than anybody thought possible, but the taps went dry in June. Who knows what might rise in its place? Well, just about everybody, but nobody’s talking….

ICONOCLAST OF THE YEAR: Jim Anderson, Beer Philadelphia. In an area where the regular press seems not care at all about the brewing community and at a time when regional beer publications are dying out, Beau James is, aside from a few frustrated columnists, the only game in town. His idiosyncratic and entirely opinionated beer magazine informs and inveighs, amuses and angers. He sets his own standards, marches to his own different drum, takes his shots and keeps on ticking. Admit it, you read every page.

WORLD’S GREATEST BAR: Dawson Street Pub. I told you last year: Just Because. Don’t make me have to say it again.

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Yes.

mcf141203The original cartoon is here.

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Looking to score a bottle of Victory/Earth Bread + Brewery Earth & Flame? Run, do not walk…

I dragged my tired old body out Downingtown way today and, instead of taking all the shortcuts and workarounds I usually do, just went out to Rt. 100 and took it all the way down to 113, arriving at Victory in half-an-hour, my fastest time ever. Granted, Rt. 100 of a late Sunday morning is a different creature entirely in terms of traffic than is it most of the time, but that was still impressive. We all love those convoluted routes we develop to miss potential slowdowns or more serious problems, but at least part of that is the good feeling of being one of the cool kids with inside knowledge. Sometimes the obvious way is the best way.

It was great fun whipping up and down the road as ii curved this way and that way, bringing back memories of another me in another time and long Sunday afternoons zipping along on 100 with motorcycling friends, wind in our faces and lovely ladies with arms around our waists holding on for dear life. Those afternoons generally ended at the historic Eagle Tavern for sandwiches and beers and slower, safer trip back to our cars. Memories are made of this…

I wanted to grab a couple of bottles of the collaborative brew, one for me and another to serve as a Christmas gift. I had originally planned to do this last Wednesday at the official release party  before the weather discouraged me. That delay cost me $20 extra since all the regular bottles were gone and only the signed collector’s ones remained. They cost $25 each compared to the standard $15, but the extra $10 per bottle goes to charity so that’s good. Here’s the point:  is that very little of this beer has gone out into distribution and the ones at the brewpub are in very short supply. If’ you plan to get one or more, realize that the window will be closing very rapidly.

At the bar I got myself a growler of Biere de Mars, one of the D’town Draft series recently introduced to allow the brewers to have some fun and experiment a bit. It is quite good and I am sipping my first glass as I write this. I did ask for a sample of the draft version of Earth & Flame just assure myself my $50 investment was a good one. It definitely was. Now the decision comes as to whether to open that second bottle and enjoy it or hold it for a special occasion.  I think I will do the latter because, if it is really as good as that first taste indicates, I don’t want to have to debate with myself about keeping the second one and replacing it on my Christmas gift list with a pair of socks. Yeah, sometimes I am That Guy.

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Posted in Beer Styles, Breweries, Brewpubs, First Taste, New Releases, Personal | Leave a comment

And just like that…

…all is well again. The internets is weird, Firefox often  be a bit strange its ownself and WordPress is a mysterious land where one does not want to dig too deep into the mysteries. Also, this forced me to try and use Chrome and IE, always an adventure.

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Weird things are happening…

This site has gone somewhat haywire for reasons I cannot so far determine. I have to log in as administrator on every visit, some comments are posting, others are not, and some seem to come and go. Hopefully all this will pass.

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Posted in Website, WTF? | 2 Comments

Whither the Dude? (an ongoing tale, posted in installments as they happen) [THE INEVITABLE UPDATE]

The peripatetic Mr. Morrison told me late last night that he is delighted to have won a Bronze at both the World Beer Cup and GABF for Barren Hill in its first year but, with them up and running strong and his work done, he is going back to consulting and, more importantly, “looking for a full time gig at a production facility.”

I would presume that, if he finds what he’s looking for, he will want to reward whoever  (me) made his desire  general knowledge so…

Find This Man the Job of His Dreams.

Thank you.

Original Post Nov. 10:

From Free Will Brewing’s Facebook page:

We would like to announce that our lead brewer, David Wood, is leaving us to become the new brewmaster at Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery!!! This is an exciting next step for him and we look forward to stellar beers and fun collaborations in his future. Cheers!!

Where have you gone, Scott Morrison? Again.

(Much appreciation to Jeff Norman for the head’s up)

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Posted in Brewers, Brewpubs, News, Philly | 10 Comments