So I’m in the Beer Business–What do I do now?

 

I’m not sure what to say.

That’s an odd way to start, but it’s true. I’ve been plenty busy thanks to the position I’ve taken with Port City, but it’s not like I haven’t had time to sit down and write something for the blog. A funny thing happened when I got into the beer business, though; I’ve had a hard time figuring out what this blog is now, or what I want to/can/should write about.

Working at retail, it was pretty easy; I’d try beers and talk about them, be openly curious about industry workings/trends, and pretty much just think out loud. Now, though, I don’t know if I have the luxury of that freedom. Do I write at length about beers I’m trying and liking, many of which are from breweries that are ostensibly competitors to the brewery I work for (the “every ‘craft’ brewery gets along” thing is simultaneously as real and not real as you think at the same time, which is kinda weird)? If I try something I don’t like and want to get into it a bit, am I accidentally starting a thing between the brewery I work for and the one who made the beer I’m discussing? On one level, I’m finding that I have to be very measured and have something very specific to write about, and I’m trying to pin down what those subject are going to be.

On another level, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t have it to do the “deep dive” right now. Without going full-on open-to-the-world Blogger, I’ve had some really serious Real Life Adult Shit going on the past couple of years. Hell, part of me getting out of retail and taking a job like the one I have now has to do with some of what’s happening in the rest of my life, and being able to have a bit more flexibility. Also, there’s just a lot of bitching, sniping, petty in-fighting these days in beer writing; I’ve never been a “major” name or voice in the conversation, and I’d rather stay silent than add to the din. The point is, beer is my business now more than ever–not only am I working for a brewery, I’m also getting more into homebrewing–but for as immersed as I am, it just doesn’t mean what it used to to me.

Which doesn’t mean I’m not interested in beer, per se–just that there are different aspects of beer that I’m learning, that I’d love to be open-book about. The passion and skill of the folks in the brewhouse; the decisions being made on a daily basis; how a growing business deals with the challenges of demand and competition in an increasingly crowded market.Working for/at a brewery is fascinating. But I’m not sure it’s my place, and I know those aren’t my stories to tell even if it were–any account would be colored by my own feelings, biases, etc. That leaves the option of basically writing marketing material under the guise of my personal blog, and I want to write that even less than anyone wants to read it.

So I’m not sure what to say. Maybe I can find a format to “review” or feature beers that doesn’t feel weird for me. Maybe I can start to drift a little bit from writing about beer exclusively; I’ve got a multitude of interests after all (for a distilled version of what this would look like, I do have a Tumblr now). I’ve been playing around with writing short fiction, and have written poetry all my life (some of it occasionally getting dangerously close to “acceptable”); maybe I start floating some of that out there. I might start writing more personally, about some of the things I’ve been dealing with. Whatever the case, to any of you out there who choose to follow along, I thank you and apologize in advance.

Hope to see you soon.

 

 

The Asshole in the Room: Revisiting BCBS, and Being a Better Beer Enthusiast

 

The disconnect

Something has been bothering me for a very long time.

Wait, let’s try that again–many things have been bothering me for a very long time, and I have no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon. What I mean to say is that something has bothered me for a long time that I recently decided to to something about. It has a little to do with the “micro vs. macro” debate, a little to do with the concept of “beer snobbery,” and a lot to do with making sure I’m not just being an asshole.

You see, I have a lot of friends who are very into beer, and follow many great beer industry folks on various social media platforms. I know and respect their palates; I know they’re not prone to hype, and have a breadth of experience that allows them to convey their impressions clearly. In short, these are people who know what the fuck they’re talking about.

What’s been bugging me is that I keep finding myself not ‘getting’ what many of them see in a specific beer. I’ll tell you what beer that is, but I want to warn some of you ‘fussier’ types that I may or may not be committing some kind of ‘craft beer’ blasphemy here, so you’ve been warned.

I just don’t like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout all that much.

There, I said it. Publicly. I don’t hate it mind you; I just don’t get it. I don’t get what the big f’ing deal is. I don’t get the raves, the scores, the madness every year when it’s released. But every year, I hear from friends and see beer industry folks whose opinions I respect talk about how great BCBS is. So where’s the disconnect?

I don’t know who the phrase might be credited to, but one of my favorite sayings is “if you look around the room and don’t know who the asshole is–it’s you.” When it comes to BCBS, was I simply the asshole in the room? I decided to try an experiment to find out.

The importance of calling yourself out, and acknowledging your personal biases 

I have a hard time talking about Goose Island. No matter what opinion I express I sound like a ‘craft’ zealot/douchebag–but the simple truth is this:

1. I only ever got to try 312 and Matilda before the buyout, and liked but didn’t fall in love with either. This is a valid enough opinion, but now it sounds like I’m the ultimate Beer Hipster, in that “I didn’t like that brewery before you ever did/didn’t.”

Me, basically. Photo via Jaime Posadas at Deviant Art

2. The Goose Island lineup hasn’t won me over as I’ve gotten to try more of it. As AB/InBev (ABI) rolled out Goose Island in Virginia, I tasted through the lineup a couple times to see if I wanted to work with their beers. Frankly, I didn’t find anything overly compelling, and what I would have bought I would have only been buying to give myself access to BCBS later, as BCBS is the only GI beer I get asked about at work with any regularity.

3. When I talk about GI beers I do like, they’re always the ‘wrong’ ones. I think Honker’s Bitter is a perfectly good go-to beer–in fact, I kinda dig it. I really enjoyed the GI Harvest Ale, and if I hadn’t been carrying the (fairly similar to me) Southern Tier Harvest at the time I first tried it, I might’ve brought it in. Visiting the Better Beer Authority crew for a blind tasting, I found The Ogden tasty, if a bit hot on the finish. But it seems like anytime I say this, the person I’m talking to looks at me like I’m malfunctioning. I can’t win when it comes to Goose Island.

So here’s the deal: in light of ABI’s recent purchases of 10 Barrel and Elysian, there’s been a renewed discussion of “craft vs. crafty,” and whether it should matter to us at all who owns how much of the breweries we love, as long as the product is produced at a high quality and is, for lack of a better term, good. Since the Goose Island buyout, I’ve worried that my opinion of their beers has been clouded by my feelings about their ownership. I worry about being that guy, doing a disservice to the breweries I enjoy and want to see succeed.

When I came across a bottle of 2014 BCBS during a visit to Norm’s a few weeks back, I decided to put together a blind tasting to settle in my head once and for all whether I just wasn’t a fan of the beer, or if I was being that asshole who ABI is getting one over on with that dumbass Super Bowl ad of theirs.

Gather ye Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, while ye may

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c'mon everybody let's--/passes out drunk

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c’mon everybody let’s–/passes out drunk

I wanted a lineup of similarly ‘big’ Bourbon barrel-aged Stouts, which I thought would be tough to put together. But after buying my bottle of 2014 BCBS, things just kinda fell into place: my friend Mike Sollom from Sly Fox had previously given me a bottle of their Barrel-Aged Nihilist Imperial Stout (which they had hoped to have gotten Virginia label approval for in time for its release last year, but unfortunately could not); and I had recently bought a bottle of Schlafly’s 2013 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout as I hadn’t tried it in some time. I also wanted to include the Schlafly because of it’s fairly regular availability. To that end, I originally planned on including a bottle of the excellent Blue Mountain Dark Hollow, as it’s available year-round and also a personal favorite–but fate stepped in when Mike Kraus generously gifted me a bottle of Concealed Darkness; a 10.6% ABV version of Dark Hollow using twice the oats and Chocolate malt, and aged in Bourbon barrels for a full 12 months. I was dying to try this beer, and figured this would be as good an occasion as any.

(Note: If you’re into that sort of thing, look for a separate post with full tasting notes later this week. Today, we’re waxing philosophical.)

The tasting itself: surprises and self-doubt

With my Stouts in place, I asked my wife to help by setting an order for the beers (referring to them as “#1, #2, etc…) and pouring them for me one at a time, a little bit at a time, over the course of about an hour so each would have a chance to warm up and display different characteristics. After running through the lineup a couple times and revisiting some for the sake of clarifying notes/for the hell of it, my wife asked me to guess which beers were which before the big reveal.

“#1 is the Sly Fox.” I knew that immediately, and was right. I’ll get into this more in the post with my notes, but I don’t know if that bottle of BA Nihilist was right. I got zero Bourbon note off of it, and there were aromas and flavors I’d have expected from an older beer from the cellar. I’d suspect oxidation, but the carbonation was lively to the point of distraction. I’ve had (and greatly enjoyed) the standard Nihilist, so this was a surprise. That said, it was my wife’s favorite of the bunch but she’s not much of a Bourbon drinker, so that’s understandable.

“#4 is Blue Mountain?” Right again. There was a sense of balance in Concealed Darkness, contributed by the right amount of roasty flavor and astringency from the malts, that was unmistakeable. Not only was it my favorite beer of the evening, it’s already on my short list for favorite beers of 2015.

So it was down to two–2014 BCBS and 2013 Schlafly BBA Imperial Stout. I thought I had them pegged: there were similarities, but the rich feel and lack of distinction in the flavors of #3 screamed “BCBS” to me, while #2 was much more boozy than I remember Schlafly being, but it had admittedly been some time since I’d tried it.

At the last minute I forgot the advice of my junior high/high school German teacher Mr. Henry, who always told us “Your first guess is your best guess; your second guess is your worst guess; your third guess is better than your second, but worse than your first.” I knew the answer, doubted myself anyway, and went with my second guess.

“Is #2 BCBS and #3 the Schlafly?” Nope. Of course not; I had it the first time. The Bourbony goodness was the 2013 Schlafly Imperial Stout, while #3 was the 2014 BCBS. Throwing out the Sly Fox for any possible issues that might have been going on in the bottle, the BCBS came up last with me.

So what? 

While my palate may be contrarian when it comes to BCBS, at least I’m not an asshole. At least in this regard. There are so many other ways I’m an asshole, but let me feel good eliminating this one, ok?

At least I know now that my impressions of BCBS aren’t just “because ABI” as I’d wondered/feared. To me, it genuinely lacks for something. The two times I’d tried BCBS previously were a pair of 2012 bottles I got when it first came to Virginia. I drank one soon after release and another near the end of 2013. Both times I found the beer ‘milkshakey’–a term I use analogous to ‘jammy’ in wine: feeling rich to the point of caricature, lacking the necessary acidity and tannin (or in the case of beer, alcoholic heat, hop bitterness, malt acidity, or all three) to give it balance. Drinking that second, slightly older BCBS, I found myself dropping a shot of High West Son of Bourye in the glass to give it some bite. The Blue Mountain had that balance, which is something I personally look for, but maybe you don’t care about balance. That’s fair enough; we all like different things, and have tastes that veer in different directions. I’m just trying to convey where I’m coming from.

The best comparison I found was between the BCBS and the Schlafly. The Schlafly threw me by being the booziest of the bunch–seriously, this thing smelled eerily similar to that glass I’d dropped the High West into once upon a time, and on the palate there were moments where it seemed like the beer was playing second fiddle to the booze. But what Schlafly Imperial Stout lacked in subtlety, it made up for with its distinctive flavors that interplayed as the beer warmed. For me, with the Bourbon set to ‘stun’ rather than ‘obliterate’ this would’ve been the beer of the night. As it is, it’s still impressive as all hell, and I highly recommend it.

The BCBS came across boozy on the nose like Schlafly. However, where you could pick out the Bourbon, malt, and chocolatey tones in the Schlafly, the BCBS was just…there. At first I wrote “more coalesced (integrated?)” but that’s not what I was experiencing. What it was was a “mish-mash,” the note I took a few minutes later. Make no mistake, BCBS is a tasty beer, but for me (again, my personal perspective) the problem is that with its massive, lush feel and “there-and-then-gone” finish, it’s a Guy Fieri-style trip to FlavorTown, rather than a full and developed experience.

First image that pops up when you GIS “Guy Fieri.” It’s goddamn perfect.

This actually jives with the one BCBS variant I’ve tried, which was also the one version that’s legit knocked me on my ass–the 2012 BCBS Cherry Rye that I got to sample during a bottle share with friends early in 2014. Rye malt, Rye Whiskey barrel, tart Michigan cherries…everything in Cherry Rye works to give it the backbone I feel BCBS so desperately needs. I’m going to try to hunt down some Coffee BCBS, as I imagine it too would have more of the acidity/bite I’m looking for.

TIL

What did I learn, if anything?

Between multi-million dollar ads and the slew of brewery buyouts to come, it’s going to become more important to separate “I don’t like that brewery’s beers” from “I don’t like who owns that brewery.” Even if you’re the kind of dumbassed idealist who feels that every purchase is a small political statement, especially when it comes to things you’re passionate about…

…/looks in mirror…

…it’s important to create the distinction and keep it in mind, because no one loves a zealot, and it’s nigh impossible to make an ownership-based argument without sounding like a snob. In the end, decisions about what you like and what’s “good” to you are about your palate, not ‘the business’. I can like Goose Island’s beers or anyone else’s, but choose not to buy them because their corporate ownership wants to put my favorite breweries (and yours, by the way) out of business. I can not be a fan of Goose Island or anyone else and still acknowledge the ability and quality found in their beers, despite the conventional wisdom that says ‘macro’ ownership immediately and necessarily means cutting corners in the brewing process, or shoddy quality. I‘ve written about this at length in the recent past, actually.

There’s a lot of talk about ABI’s “war” on “craft beer,” as if AB or InBev ever wasn’t–but that’s a conversation for another day. The response to Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad has contained a lot of exactly what the beer industry doesn’t need–judgement of the buying decisions, palates, and motivations of others. Think whatever you want about a company’s business practices, but when it comes to the beer itself:

-Trust your palate, and yours alone.

-Having made any judgements about beers you do/don’t like, never stop challenging yourself. No one is infallible, and our palates change dramatically over the course of our lives.

-Learn to ‘not like’ things without ‘hating’ them. Please.

-Don’t be the asshole in the room.

Tasting notes in a couple days. Until next time.

 

 

‘The Kerning…ing': An Amateur’s Look at the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada Complaint

So are you saying all IPAs look alike?

Updated 1/14/15: Late in the evening of 1/13, Tony Magee took to Twitter to announce that Lagunitas would not continue its legal proceedings against Sierra Nevada. For whatever I thought of Magee’s tone in public statements related to the suit, I am a fan of his and Lagunitas (as well as a longtime Sierra Nevada fan) and I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness to read his statement that 1/13 was “the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery.” 

Discussing the merits of the case seems moot now that it’s not going forward, but there’s a very good analysis offered here. Regardless, I think the precedent set may have been a dangerous one: as fans and enthusiasts, we simply don’t see the business aspects of the industry in rational terms. I respect Magee’s decision to drop the case (and thank him for the nice note he dropped in my Twitter account’s DM box that I can’t reply to), but hope the decision doesn’t come back to bite him later on. 

For now, we’re left to take away whatever conclusions we see fit and move on to the next thing. I wish all the best for both breweries, and encourage everyone to listen to this podcast interview with Magee from December–with his perspective on the state of the industry, and how he sees the role of breweries like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada going forward as the industry grows. It’s worth a listen.

Now, the original post from 1/13/15/. –Nick 

————————————————

So, this happened. A quick heads up: those looking for HOT TAEKS just move along now, as this post is basically going to take many words to say what Hipster Brewfus said here (albeit in a slightly less contentious manner).

It’s easy to be cynical about the Lagunitas complaint filed against Sierra Nevada over the labeling of its new Hop Hunter IPA; there are times when it seems there is nothing beer fans enjoy more than getting pissed off at brewers/breweries/retailers/distributors/each other. Lines are drawn; sides are taken. Nothing is accomplished save for online chest-puffery and desperate attempts at getting the last word.

I’m not going to take sides; I don’t think there’s any real basis for doing so here outside of one’s own personal biases/opinions. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts, no one will likely ever hear much about this no matter the outcome; at heart, this is an ‘inside baseball’ story that is only interesting in that it represents a look into the future of a growing industry. So let’s break it down:

What We Know

For good, more in-depth analysis of the complaint, check out Brendan Palfreyman’s Twitter timeline.  I’ve had the chance to read through the complaint myself; I’m not even close to a lawyer so I’m not going to make any declarations to that end, but it is an interesting document nonetheless. Here are some takeaways:

-“When Lagunitas began selling its now iconic IPA beer in 1995, there existed only a handful of other brewers who produced an India Pale Ale, and, on information and belief, no other company had marketed or sold its India Pale Ale using the acronym ‘IPA.'” Forgetting the first half of that statement, it’s the second part that is interesting here. I was a high school freshman/sophomore in 1995, so I missed a lot of the establishment of what today are the ‘bigger’ names in so-called ‘craft’ beer. The idea of Lagunitas specifically staking a claim to something like “the acronym IPA” had never even entered my mind until this morning.

-“…Lagunitas IPA has become the Company’s flagship beer. It is available year-round and has been the top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade—and one of the best-selling India Pale Ales in the nation.” Not a lawyer alert: I don’t know what kind of legal threshold a document like this has to clear, but I’d love to see the numbers on that “top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade” claim. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d just never heard any similar claim and wonder what that list looks like.

-“While other brewers have adopted the shorthand parlance of “IPA” to market their India Pale Ales, only Lagunitas is identified with the large, bold, black, centralized “IPA” lettering…In addition to its distinguishable IPA beer, much of the success of the Lagunitas IPA can be attributed to its iconic “IPA” family of trademarks.” Again, something I guess I’ve just always taken for granted given the ubiquity and history of Lagunitas in my home market, but when I think about it…I can’t argue with that.

-“Lagunitas is well-known for using its distinctive “IPA” lettering in a manner that it is the center and focal point of the overall design. The unique “IPA” lettering used in the Lagunitas “IPA” Family of Trademarks has a distinctive serif font, distinctive kerning (or letter spacing), between the “P” and the “A”, slightly aged or weathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and the elimination of any periods between the letters. These elements together are unique to the iconic design of the Lagunitas IPA.” Here we have the beating heart of Lagunitas’ argument. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

-This isn’t the first time Lagunitas has shut down someone’s “IPA” label: In November 2012, Tony Magee of Lagunitas took issue with Knee Deep’s IPA label, saying it was a little too close to his own. The Knee Deep case was a little more cut-and-dry perhaps, but still–we know Lagunitas will go to bat for what it perceives as its most important symbol.

-Intellectual Property (IP) law is insane and needs reforming–Not a lawyer alert (again): As I understand it, the way things are now, if you have a trademark and there’s any chance of another company infringing upon it, you have to make a case out of it. If you don’t protect your trademarks, you leave yourself open to abuse by any number of competitors. We’ll get back to this later in terms of public perception.

What We Can Infer (aka What We’ll be Arguing About Online)

-Tony takes this stuff personally: If you’re into beer at all, you know either from hanging out on forums or by following him on Twitter just how personally Tony Magee takes his business. That bleeds into the complaint in passages like these:

“The founder and current Chief Executive Officer of Lagunitas, Tony Magee, followed a different path for the Company’s flagship beer and designed the labels to prominently feature the acronym ‘IPA.'”

“Indeed, Lagunitas has invested substantial amounts of time and millions of dollars in promoting the Lagunitas IPA with the Lagunitas “IPA” family of trademarks. Lagunitas is unique among many of its competitors in that the Company’s founder, Tony Magee, still designs the beer labels and strives to instill personality into each of the beer recipes and the corresponding labels and packaging the Company makes.” 

Magee’s been very vocal in the past about breweries encroaching on what he sees as ‘his’ turf–the American IPA. Whether he’s right to see it that way or not is, of course, a matter of perspective.

-The Hop Hunter label is a departure from the regular Sierra Nevada branding: I’d only taken a passing notice of Hop Hunter’s label when I first read about it a couple weeks ago. I was more excited by the prospect of a potentially game-changing year-round ‘Wet Hop’ IPA–I think all of us were. In Lagunitas’ complaint, however, it is noted just how much different Hop Hunter’s packaging looks compared to other Sierra Nevada IPAs:

One of these things is definitely not like the others, but does that mean anything?

In and of itself, that drew a big “who cares?” from many–myself included. What I hadn’t thought of was the similarity between Hop Hunter’s label and the Sierra Nevada ‘Beer Camp’ collaboration labels:

hmmm…

“Particularly given this reputation for collaboration with other brewers, and based upon the obvious similarities to the Lagunitas ‘IPA’ Family of Trademarks, there exists a great likelihood that consumers mistakenly will believe that the ‘Hop Hunter IPA’ is a collaboration with Lagunitas, and, thereby, sponsored or approved by Lagunitas. This creates a consumer-perceived connection between the two breweries, thus providing Sierra Nevada with a shortcut to consumer acceptance of their India Pale Ale offering.”  I’m not sure I ever would’ve seen it if they didn’t call it out, but now that you mention it…

So What Does this Mean, if Anything? 

Like I said earlier, I’m not here to take sides or blast anyone. I will say for those out there who dismiss the complaint out-of-hand because ‘they don’t look that much alike’ to look at the image up top again and bear this in mind from a retailer with over 10 years in this business: people don’t read.

I’ll say it again: people don’t read. I write a weekly newsletter letting consumers who signed up for it know what new arrivals we’re getting in our shop that week, along with a listing of what beers I’ll be sampling that weekend. With the new arrivals, I include pricing, what day the beer will arrive, and if there are any purchasing limits applicable. I then immediately start getting phone calls or email replies asking how much something costs, or if a beer is coming in that day or the next, or how many bottles they can buy, or what I’m sampling that Saturday. We’re all busy; we all don’t have the time to parse over every newsletter or offering we get in our inboxes. We see what we want to see then move along to the next thing we have to do.

A co-worker saw me looking over a story about the complaint and scoffed “Oh GOD–beer people are so bad.” Then I showed them the picture of the sixers up top and they said “You know, at first glance I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.” Substitute the average consumer at their local grocery store or independent retailer for my co-worker and you see why Tony Magee and Lagunitas filed this complaint; if there’s even a chance that a competitor’s packaging can be seen as infringing upon your trademark, you have to do something.

That said, Magee does Lagunitas no favors when he takes to Twitter to throw stuff like this out (stitched together from his timeline during the day on 1/13/15):

“Trademarks r a big part of what craft brewers do…like a cattle brand or aboriginal peeps tattoo. The 1st TM was Bass Ale’s ‘red triangle’. It represents an awful lot. It’s how u know us as individuals. Maker’s-marks were like that in medieval craft guilds. Identity is subtle biz…We TM’d our IPA as a ‘design mark’. Can’t claim the letters. 1000’s of us make IPAs. Most have found their own cool way t say it w/strength. That work is a genuine tribute to the forces of creativity present in CraftBrewing today. That voice of the individual brewer is very pure. Finding a uniquely individual voice is hard in life&even harder in design: a visual language w/o words. Archetypes. Symbols. Cypheric memes. When doin sumpin new its best to build fr the ground up. It’s time-consuming. Easier to use a sky-hook and lever up on someone else’s works. But there’s a certain cheapness to that & u don’t own the ground you stand on, cuz there is no ground. But it’s easier. And it’s cheaper. Can you imagine what would happen if I used a crown logo or a golden scroll or a red star or a red triangle or a harp on my own label?There would be hell to pay and we’d have it coming…This is a course of action I did not want to take- I tried to work w Ken (Grossman of Sierra Nevada) without succes. Deeply saddened and & I wish it was otherwise.” 

All Magee needed to say was the last sentence of that, along with something to the effect of “If you don’t protect your trademarks against EVERY perceived infringement, they mean nothing. It will be resolved in time.” For its part, Sierra Nevada released a terse statement essentially saying “We’ve been making IPAs since ’81, and put it in big letters on the label so folks know they’re getting an IPA because kidz today like teh IPAs.” (Not a knock; I actually enjoyed the brevity of the statement and suspect brevity was the point.)

These are two of the breweries that got me into beer. I’ve never had anything but great interactions with the folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with from both breweries over the years. I like to think Sierra Nevada designed Hop Hunter’s packaging to stand out in its lineup because as a new year-round beer there’s a lot riding on it (if it’s as good as I’ve heard, they’ve got a winner on their hands) and they wanted to brand it strongly, rather than specifically targeting Lagunitas IPA. I like to think Magee reached out to Grossman early enough that there was a genuine opportunity for Sierra to redo the label if it so chose, rather than spring a complaint against them and their potentially ‘game-changing’ beer at the last-minute.

As usual you’re right, Dwayne.

Fair enough. Here’s what I know: while this case isn’t interesting in-and-of itself, it merits watching because with the growth of ‘craft’, ‘crafty’, ‘artisanal’ beer or whatever you want to call it, this is far from the last time two big players have at each other–and as the business gets bigger, the fights will get uglier.

The future is bright, but it’s far from clean.

Until next time.

 

Beers of the Year 2014, Full Edition

Note: I’d written a last-minute addition for this week’s ArlNow column, but sent it in too late. Here’s the full list. –Nick 

Saving me from finding one more angle for a Christmas-themed column, I realized that the 26th will mark the last “Your Beermonger” of 2014—which means it’s once again time for my little-anticipated, completely unscientific Beers of the Year column. As always, this is a list of seven (the list is seven this year, because reasons) beers that I wouldn’t necessarily say were the “best” of 2014, but those new/new to me that I enjoyed the most and/or made the biggest impression. Ok, onto the fun:

 

  1. Abita Bourbon St. Imperial Stout: A chocolate-toned, boozy bit of decadent fun that over-delivered in every aspect. There were some criticisms that Bourbon St. was a little ‘thin’, but amid a sea of unbalanced, milkshake-y, rich for the sake of richness Imperial Stouts, even if Bourbon St. seemed light by comparison (I personally didn’t find it so) that isn’t necessarily a knock on it. In any event, Bourbon St. was an important shot across the bow of the beer world from Abita: the Louisiana brewery hasn’t been around for over 30 years by accident, and still has some tricks up its sleeve.

 

  1. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin may not be the perfect beer, but it’s certainly a perfect beer—representing the best in West Coast hop-obsession in an IPA that doesn’t overwhelm in terms of bitterness or ABV. Sculpin wants for nothing, and yet the addition of grapefruit rind does something magical to this beer. The grapefruit doesn’t necessarily make Sculpin better; it’s just more wonderful, more fun, more lighthearted. After trying Grapefruit Sculpin at Stone’s Anniversary Party this summer, I worried we’d never see it in Virginia. A late-December shipment barely qualifies as a cameo in terms of sating demand, but here’s hoping it’s just the first of many runs we’ll see of this delightful beer.

 

  1. Sixpoint Sensi Harvest: 2014 was a big year for Sixpoint; a repackaging/rebranding effort saw its core beers move from tallboy can 4-packs to 6-packs of the sleek 12oz cans previously only used for bigger beers like Resin or 3 Beans. The new Sixpoint sixers were arriving much fresher than before, which paid off in a big way when it introduced Sensi Harvest Ale. Back in October I wrote about my love for Fresh Hop and Wet Hop beers, and it didn’t take long for Sensi to become by go-to Harvest Ale. I appreciated its combination of its 4.7% ABV with an intense clarity of hop character. It’s too late to catch Sensi Harvest Ale but the current Sixpoint seasonal, Global Warmer, is highly recommended.

 

  1. Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose: This summer’s release of Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink, And The Holy Gose delivered an unexpected hit from the stalwart California brewery. As the summer ended, I figured that was that and we’d have to wait until next year for more—and then the brewery posted a picture of Gose cans ready to be filled, with the words “Blood Orange” added to the labeling. The Blood Orange variant of Anderson Valley Gose isn’t just a tart, light, addictively easy-drinking Session Ale; it’s become the palate-cleanser beer of choice for bottle-shares all-around. A recently-arrived batch of the standard Gose has ignited hopes that one or both beers may go year-round; we can only hope.

 

  1. Three Brothers Drift: I only had a couple of issues with Drift: one was that it was labeled as a “Session IPA”, and at 5% ABV it was neither. The much bigger issue I had was that it was only produced for a few months—immediately after trying it for the first time back in July, I emailed Adam Shifflett of Three Brothers to shamelessly plead for it to become a year-round offering. There wasn’t a better Pale Ale introduced in our market this year than Drift. Easy-going and balanced, but not with so much malt as to diminish its bright hop character, Drift became a regular tenant in my refrigerator along with many of my customers. The Harrisonburg-based brewery did extent the production run of Drift into early fall, but Drift won’t be year-round just yet. Look for some last (still tasty) 4-packs on shelves now, or when it returns this summer.

 

  1. The Bruery Black Tuesday (2014): Here’s where I admit to the arbitrary nature of my Beers of the Year list: Black Tuesday is exactly the kind of over-the-top, ultra-boozy Stout I was talking about when writing about Abita’s Bourbon St. above. Also, were this purely a “Best Beers of the Year” list, Black Tuesday would have been my number one pick in a landslide. The formula is deceptively simple: Black Tuesday is a Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, released on the last Tuesday of October every year. The reality, as it is so often with beers from The Bruery, is something else entirely: varying between 18-19.7% ABV in different vintages, Black Tuesday showcases a depth of flavor rather than overwhelming the palate. It has a balanced structure (as much as a beer can and still hover just beneath 20% ABV, anyway) rather than burdening the tongue with sweetness or alcoholic heat. Every element, from the chocolate and roasty notes in the malts to the spicy Bourbon tones, is layered just so—if the overall impression of the beer weren’t so massive, I’d dare call it harmonious. TL; DR—sometimes the hype is real. This was one of those times.

 

  1. Hardywood Pils: I tried, and greatly enjoyed, the draft-only Bohemian Pilsner Hardywood released this past summer. I was slightly dismayed when word got out that the Richmond brewery would be opting to bottle a German-style Pilsner instead to add to its year-round offerings, but I should have known better. To a beer, Hardywood’s offerings have been impeccably crafted, and Pils is no exception. In fact, I think in some ways Pils may prove to be Hardywood’s most important beer in years to come. The hype surrounding its Gingerbread Stout (and subsequent variants) may have gotten people to line up in droves for limited draft pours and bottle sales, but quietly Pils has become one of my best-selling beers in a very short period of time. Hardywood Pils is everything you want from a German-style Pilsner: refreshingly crisp, flavorful, drier than the Czech-styles on the market, and at 5.2% ABV it’s not overbearing while avoiding coming across as too light. It’s become a go-to beer with a constant presence in my refrigerator; an excellent interpretation of an Old World style that any of my friends can grab a bottle of, understand, and enjoy—distinctly American but with respect for the traditions of the style. Call the segment of the market we work or share an interest in “craft” beer, or “artisan”, or “small” or “independent”—whatever it is, we need more beers like Hardywood Pils to bring more folks into the fold. If you don’t love Lager, you don’t love beer: Hardywood Pils is a great Lager.

 

Honorable Mentions: Hardywood RVA IPA; LoverBeer Nebulin-a; Ninkasi Tricerahops; Stone Enjoy By IPA (all of them, I don’t care if you thought the February batch wasn’t as good as the April but better than July—they’re all good); Parkway Majestic Mullet Kolsch; Port City Ways & Means; Mikkeller Better Half IPA; Devils Backbone Wood-Aged Kilt Flasher; Stillwater/Westbrook Gose Gone Wild; The Alchemist Focal Banger; Stone Coffee Milk Stout; Robinson’s The Trooper; The Bruery Atomic Kangarue, and too many others to list.

 

The joy of being a beer geek is being able to try new things, and discover a new appreciation for the art of brewing. I hope, in some small way, that I’ve been able to contribute to your beer geekery this year, and look forward to better year ahead in 2015. Have a wonderful New Year’s. Until next time.

Changing Tastes: A Quick Reasoning of Why ZZ Top is the Best ‘Band’ Ever

If you’d asked me when I was 10, I’d have said the Stones; at 13 it was Primus (for a long time it was Primus). I can (and probably have) made arguments for Led Zepplin, The Beatles, The Who, Van Halen, Motorhead, Metallica, and many more. But right now, if you asked me who the best band of all time is, I’d say ZZ Top.

What?

Let me put it this way: there are bands that have more artistic merit. There are bands that are more technically talented. But at this point in my life, I’m a full-on boring-ass grown up and I know what a band’s job is–you hire a band as entertainment for your bar/club/roadhouse. You hire a band to get people to dance, and drink, and drink more, and dance, and make questionable ‘relationship’ decisions after a sufficient number of drinks.

Go listen to a few ZZ Top records–go on, just let ’em play through. Is there any other band you’d hire over them? Van Halen gets close; Aerosmith has it’s moments. Mick’s obsession with being taken as an artist dragged the Stones too far away too many times, otherwise they’d be a shoo-in. ZZ Top swings; they’re understated until they’re not (the end of Nationwide is pure badassery). They can provide the soundtrack for a whole evening of stiff drinks and bad decisions. You can’t do that. If  could do that, I’d have never ended up working in wine/beer stores. It’s a gift.

Best band ever. Until I realize someone else is.

 

ArlNow Column 10.17.14. Supplemental

Song of the Week: Born to Hula, Queens of the Stone Age. Just ’cause.

A quick post today, with some additional thoughts related to my ArlNow column as I’ve instituted a word count on myself there…

“What came out was, frankly, depressing; no one here wants to read about me being a sad panda.” I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated the first pass at this week’s column. It wasn’t so much bad as it was unfocused; a total slog to get through reading. Also, by the time I was done I realized what I’d written wasn’t really how I felt about the matter–a valuable lesson for the writers out there: recognize when you’re onto something and when you’re just getting your thoughts sorted out.

“More people with less experience in and knowledge of the industry, and of beer itself are going to be weighing in.” From local morning shows to mainstream websites/magazines, you’ll be seeing lots of “Hey, look–there’s more than just Bud Light out there!” kind of bullshit over the next few years. Set your Hack Filter to ‘Kill’.

“…it’s about good beer made by good people who give a damn.” That’s not to say that there aren’t good beers being made at the ‘macro’ level, or that there aren’t highly-skilled, wonderful people making them. Of course there are. Word count demand cut the qualifier; I just wish I didn’t have to feel like I had to do one at all.

“There’s no point in getting worked up about the opinions and speculation of people who weren’t with beer as it was starting out, and won’t stick around when/if the industry ever hits a slide..”  I do want to expand on this a bit. I didn’t mean this as a dig on Chang–as I say earlier in the column, he’s not ignorant of the ‘craft’ beer scene, only expressing his own personal opinion. That line is more about the coming wave of media coverage the beer industry is going to be caught up in.

As beer geeks, we’re gonna have to be a bit more selective over what we get worked up about. There’s gonna be a lot of misinformed articles, TV features, etc., but it’s important to bear in mind that most of it will be essentially harmless. The fact that we’ve all spent the week going back-and-forth about the personal opinion of one chef rather than refocusing on the inevitable AB/InBev/SABMiller merger with the Times weighing in is troubling to me. Like I said on Twitter, there are real issues that can/will impact the growing ‘craft’/independent beer industry; celebrity chefs liking Bud Light ain’t one of them.

Though if you’re looking for someone to do the ‘takedown’ piece, Garrett Oliver pretty much nails it here. There’s a reason I really like that guy. Also, Jeppe from Evil Twin has a great ‘rebuttal’ on his Tumblr.

Next week: I (most likely) dig into my cellar a bit, and get to try my first batch of homebrew!

California Love, Part 3: The Good, The Bad, & The Hoppy

Yeah, that’s one from the ol’ wayback machine there. Nice.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve recapped visits to two Southern California breweries–Stone and The Bruery–that I made during my recent vacation. Today, to wrap everything up in a nice little bow, I’d like to talk about some of the things I noticed during my too-brief stay out West:

Good–L.A.’s beer scene: I expected to find all kinds of good beer in San Diego, and was not disappointed. What did surprise me was how many breweries are up and running in L.A. itself. During an afternoon trip to the beach at Santa Monica, my wife and I ducked into The Commons Ale House, a small beer bar just off the beach focusing on craft beer with some great local options on tap. Over games of Connect Four, we got to try Angel City‘s Eureaka! Wit (4.9% and made with Nelson Sauvin? Yes, please!) and El Segundo Brewery‘s Blue House Mosaic Pale Ale. El Segundo makes a handful of Blue House Pales featuring different hops. I noticed some Blue House Citra at a Whole Foods near my friend’s house later on in the week, along with a number of other L.A.-based brewery selections. Reading a Brewing News-style periodical about the L.A. beer scene, it appears that there are more breweries are coming online across the city; always a good sign.

Bad–Hop-centric, sometimes to a fault: What I found in SoCal was a dearth of the Lagers, non-hoppy Ales (Kolsch-style, Golden Ales, etc.), Wheat Beers, and mild Belgian styles that are more readily found here on the East Coast. For the most part, I was fine with this–I got into beer as a hophead, and I’m always going to be one. For people like my wife, the emphasis on big hops in nearly everything being put out by craft brewers can be tough to deal with.

My wife, you see, is not a fan of particularly bitter hoppy beers. Over the 10 years we’ve been together, she’s tried more beers than most people in the industry, and she has a great palate–she knows what she likes, and knows what she doesn’t. Too often in California we’d look through a menu at beer lists and there just wouldn’t be much of anything that she could get into.

Good–That may be changing? All that said, I did see some signs that things might be shifting a bit on the West Coast. The aforementioned Angel City Brewery offers their Wit year-round, along with a year-round Pilsner, and seasonals like a Wheat Ale and Oktoberfest. Modern Times offers a Saison and Coffee Stout that, while relatively hoppy for their styles by the numbers (30 and 40 IBU, respectively), aren’t overly aggressive. AleSmith‘s Anvil ESB was a beer we both loved. Even during our Stone visit, my wife found herself enjoying Go-To IPA (no bittering hops; all aroma) and loved the limited-release Sprocketbier from earlier this year. I got to snag a sixer of Firestone Oaktoberfest and was impressed; hopefully production is boosted enough for next year that we see a little on the East Coast.

Good–If you do like hops, though… Oh man, is it fun being a hophead in California. The night we landed, my friend and I went on a BevMo run to stock up his fridge a bit. I decided to buy some ChronicAle from Port Brewing. I’m a fan of Port and hadn’t tried this one before. ChronicAle is a hoppy Session Amber Ale, clocking in at 4.9%, and comes in six-packs of tallboy cans. How cool is that? Also, those sixers of tallboys cost $9.99 at BevMo–this was the first of many moments where I contemplated staying in L.A., and never coming back. Also found and enjoyed while in California: Firestone 805 (in six-pack bottles and 12-pack cans), AleSmith IPA and Pale Ale 394, Stone Bastard In The Rye, Beechwood Alpha Master, Ritual Single Rye IPA…there’s a lot of great beer in SoCal, y’all.

Good (though bad for my waistline)–The four main food groups: Doughnuts, burgers, shakes, and tacos. They’re all everywhere, and of such quality that it’s hard to pass them up. The doughnuts especially; I had no idea that doughnuts were a thing out there, but they are. There’s an outstanding doughnuts shop a couple blocks from my friend’s house–every morning, we found an excuse to stop in for buttermilk doughnuts with maple icing, cronuts (I had to try one–delicious, but in a way that’s a little too much), Thai iced tea, and simple old-school glazed doughnuts that were so good but I can’t explain why–they just were.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

On the way back from our visit to The Bruery, we stopped at a King Taco location in East L.A., where we destroyed a copious amount of great lengua tacos, sopes, and there was a burrito somewhere in there too (my friend, I think). The fresh cilantro, perfectly done beef tongue, hot sauce, and open-air seating made for one of my favorite L.A. meals.

Put it this way: this was the first vacation I’ve ever gone on that I’ve gained weight during.

Overall, I found many more good than bad things about SoCal. There’s a lot to love (especially the changes of scenery available with a minimum of driving time), but more than anything else I can’t wait to go back. We had a sort of whirlwind tour of the area, barely scratching the surface. I can’t even begin to think about questions like ‘Could I live out there?’–though I am curious. I think I might be able to: it’s not so different from the DC area in that the trick is in finding the part of town that works best for you. I would miss Southern food terribly…

…it would be nice to live in a place like that, though. It’s expansive and mysterious to me. I don’t know L.A. in the slightest: I liked what I saw, thought, and I’m intrigued.

I say stuff like this every time I come back from anywhere else, it seems. Even I’m annoyed with myself at this point. I’ve been thinking a lot about my life lately–what I should be doing, what I might want to do, where I want to live, what’s important to me. Basically, what the hell am I doing with my life?

My wife and I both have obligations that have us tied to the DC Area for the foreseeable future, so even if we found a place we’d want to move to, we wouldn’t be doing it any time soon. I think I keep using the idea of moving to another area as a way to daydream about what I could  be doing, instead of trying to do that here. Instead of having the difficult conversations with myself to figure out exactly what it is I want to be/should be doing.

It’s very early on Friday, September 12th. I am watching a collection of footage from the September 11th, 2001 attacks. It’s a day I remember vividly, but I always watch some of the news reports from that day every year. I don’t know why. A reporter talks as people scramble; in the background is the sound–what I understand to be the sound of sirens of vehicles that were crushed in the collapse–that I’ll never forget. My dog is laying on the floor; he opens his eyes alertly when he hears it, having been drifting in and out of sleep. He was born more than a decade after all of this; he doesn’t know what the sound is.

On 9/11 I was 21 years old. I had recently gone through a break up that would mess with me for some time to come. I sold guitars by day and occasionally played them at night, and had taken to quitting my job every few months when the bullshit of the place got to me. It would be about 4 years before I even took my first job in a wine shop.

I was just beginning to sort myself out back then; but when I think of those days now I look through the lens of the maxim “Do what makes you happy.” Back then I was happy when I was playing–and with one person in particular. No matter the project, or the circumstance, there was a guy who always made it worthwhile for me, who allowed me to be happy. We made no money, and a lot of the time I spent in the band I was in back then was chock full of unnecessary bullshit, but it was all a means to an end, and being on stage led to meaningful moments.

That they were meaningful only to me is irrelevant now; what is relevant is that I’ve rarely felt that sense of meaning since. I love what I do, and it’s amazing to have been witness to so much growth in the industry I’m a part of. But I’m turning 35. I hobble when I get out of bed in the morning. I don’t know what it is I’m working toward, but I know the path I’m on right now isn’t getting me there. I like where I work; I like the people I work with; I love my customers; and I love the spectrum of breweries and beers I get to support in the position I have.

I work in beer. I’m not trying to change the world–frankly, with my family history, it’s probably for the best for me not to try to change the world. I’ve been looking for the sense of purpose, of meaning: I get some of it from the writing work I do, but it’s fleeting–supplementary income on a subject I enjoy. I’ve been looking for BIG meaning, where instead I just need to remember I was just as happy with those moments doing things that only held meaning for me and a handful of others, at most. I’m looking for what’s next; I’m looking for the point. And it’s so much easier to imagine all the things I could do somewhere else when really I’d just be having the same struggle in a new setting. Most days, I’d say that’s enough of a change to be worth it–but it’s not. It’s not even close.

I’ve been doing my job and trying sort it out, just like I imagine most of you all are, and I’ll continue to do my job the best I can. As I do, I’ll continue visiting new places, and maybe I’ll pass through the right place at the right time and it’ll all come together. Maybe not. I wish I had a conclusion; some kind of epiphany that would make all of my typing a little more relevant. But I don’t.

L.A. was cool; as were Palm Springs and San Diego. I don’t know if any of them are the place for my wife and I. For certain, you can expect me to make at least a few more visits–for research, of course. Until then, we keep going. Best of luck to you all.

Until next time.