30 Jun 2010 @ 6:45 PM 

I’m always a little amazed by the bizarre cultural dichotomy that beer finds itself in.

It seems almost insane to me that the image on the left (one of the least salubrious Beer Magazine covers) could somehow influence the image on the right.

On one hand, beer is the domain of the 1970’s frat boy culture. Girls in bikinis, kegs, hot dogs, and alcohol abuse. What could be more American? Beer is also undeniably blue collar. At the end of a long shift at the factory, you can imagine a group of guys heading to their local to throw back a pint or two, but you can’t really imagine them sipping a Fuzzy Navel or a glass of Merlot.

On the other hand, beer is swiftly joining wine in the high-end marketplace. It is being recognized for its strengths in food pairing and you are increasingly likely to see someone drinking a goblet of great beer at a fancy restaurant. It’s not just wine and cocktails anymore.

I think about this a lot whenever somebody brings up craft beer in cans.

I recognize that cans are a good delivery vehicle for beers. They are little kegs. They don’t let light in and have the opportunity, when filling, for a totally oxygen-free experience. They are lighter, less expensive, and have a smaller impact on the environment. They are a brilliant packaging option.

But! Cans have the cultural cache of beach, ballpark, and BBQ. Macros dominate the can market and when you think about beer in a can, you pretty much can’t avoid thinking about Bud Light… or.. maybe warm Schlitz. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the beer in the can, it’s a fact that over the past 100 years what’s been in a can has been industrial light lager. It’s like how when you hear the word “forty” in relation to a drink your brain automatically goes here.

I guess I wonder when we’re likely to see this:

Craft beer geeks? We understand that great beer comes in a can, but we’re a small, small part of the market, and even then I don’t usually think of canned beer as beer dinner material. I think of it as “drunk” material.

I see the craft market going to two directions right now. I see it shooting for accessibility. I see it broadening its audience in the long search for market share and perhaps making some sacrifices in image as it goes. I also see it going down the fancy-pants-and-dinner-jacket road in an effort to be taken seriously in the culinary world. I see big, elegant bottles with fancy labels being served at cheese pairings, but that way lies inaccessibility and a battle across the long inlaid roads of wine.

So it all makes me wonder: Can craft go in both of these directions at once? Or will we inevitably see a market segment split where part of the market seeps back toward appealing to the lowest common denominator while still making big-flavored beer and part of the market takes its cicerone to go stand next to the sommelier?

They may not make significantly different products right now. After all, the market is young and while our brewing imagination runs wild, it does so within parameters that are only just starting to expand. Twenty or thirty years down the road when these cultural differences are more stark, will we have two craft markets instead of one? Or will cans find a place at the dinner table?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 30 Jun 2010 @ 06 45 PM

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 24 Jun 2010 @ 9:38 AM 

No shit, buddy. You start starting a brewery and then you fall off the face of the blog? Way to show dedication. Hell, you showed up for the Session that you hosted and then.. what? Posted a few pictures of a half-done tattoo and fell into obscurity? Good work!

Okay. Touche. I’ve been absent. My bad. In truth, I’ve been working on a few articles and just haven’t had a chance to finish them up (though I did get one out – non-beer related – for Intrepid Media) and.. and.. I haven’t forgotten about you, internet. It’s not you, it’s me. I swear!

In fact, just to get things rolling again before I drop my bomb post about craft market dichotomy, let me give you a couple of posts from OTHER blogs that I’ve found interesting, lately.

Nate at Thank Heaven for Beer wrote a great piece yesterday about HR 4278 and why reduction of excise tax on small brewers is NOT a stimulus package, and why it is, actually, fair. This follows up another great post (with equally great discussion) about beer reviews and whether or not they’re legit if they used terms you can’t recognize.

Seriously – if you like to read about the craft beer industry, go read both of those pieces AND all of the comments. They’re well worth it. Thoughtful pieces, thoughtful commentary.

Ken at The Hop Press wrote a really neat piece about Sierra Nevada’s use of a Gas Chromatographic Mass Spectrometer w/ Olfactory to pick up really specific fruit flavors and aromas from new hop varietals. It’s a really fascinating piece. I enjoy the implications of what it means for the future of flavor in craft beer, which I would like to define as: “More awesome is yet to come.”

And as for me? You just watch and wait. And then take me to the cleaners in the comments on my next post.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 24 Jun 2010 @ 09 38 AM

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 05 Jun 2010 @ 5:59 PM 

Thank to everyone who took part in this month’s session. We had a lot of great response. It was great to see such a breadth of posts, and I was happy to see some people contribute who haven’t in a while. Here for your reading pleasure:

Mario at Brewed For Thought defines the “California Session Beer”, made with umph, but not too much.

The Beer Nut takes us on a small tour of two session beers: Hopback Entire Stout and Breconshire Night Beacon.

John/Devoid of Beertaster.ca talks about his favorite lawnmower beers.

Steph Weber, one of the many talented bloggers of the Hop Press posits that session beer is a personal definition, and tells us hers: easy to enjoy while chatting with friends.

Chris at Notch Session Ales gives us a look at his recent article for Beer Advocate magazine in which he says he wants to take the definition for session beer back from the 6% crowd.

Derrick at Bay Area Beer Runner likens session beer “great background music during an evening out with friends.”

Jay at A Beer in Hand (is worth two in the fridge) tells us about returning to his session stout after an affair with IPAs.

Lew Bryson goes to town at The Session Beer Project, puts some old demons to bed, and reiterates his definition a session beer in the face of the bigger burrito. You’ll never think of a ball-washer at the golf course the same way again.

Steve at All Good Beer hopes that craft breweries will continue to expand the session beer market, even though they’re not necessarily headline-grabbing beers.

Brian Yaeger, author of Red, White, and Brew says that if he had a lawn, he’d mow it with Anchor Steam. Well, no. He’d mow it with a riding lawnmower, but he’d drink Anchor Steam. He also waxes eloquent about the low ABV brews at this local hangouts.

Sean at Beer Search Party suggests that the reason that the Session Beer Train has not yet pulled into the station is because of America’s hypocritical self-view of over-consumption, or perhaps that many craft beer drinkers see session beers as “too macro.”

Tom at Lug Wrench Brewing asks you to be a rebel and go drink a session beer.

Someone at Beer Made Clear (there so many of you guys), who apparently has family neighboring mine in Northern Maine (yeah Fort Kent!) and tells a story of discovering Shipyard Fuggles IPA in during a session which he describes as “all-encompassing conversations which start with beers but end with opinions; on politics, culture or the nature of good and evil.”

Jon at The Brew Site gets back to the review and gives us a one of Gone Fishin Mild Ale, from Beer Valley Brewing.

Peter at A Better Beer Blog notes that session drinking is “essentially the guts of the craft beer movement” and hopes that craft brewers will start to “sessionize” everything instead of “imperialize” everything in the future.

Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer tells that old joke about the Englishman, the Belgian, and the Czech, notes that session beers are different for everyone and wonders whether the appellation “session” needs definition at all.

Seabass, from Natty Greene’s, posts from inside aussenhaus where he compares craft beer to coffee and wine, and notes that session beers are the greatest delight and the hardest to make, and defines session beer as “deliciously non-intrusive, self-explanatory, [and] a good companion in life.”

Alan at A Good Beer Blog notes that what is probably stopping craft beer from growing is the industry’s inability to take advantage of the session market.

Jim at Two Parts Rye approves.

Jay Brooks of the tells us not of session beers, but of the sessions themselves, and shares the story of the founding of his own regular session, The Philopotes Society.

And finally, my own post where I note that session beer, to me, is one that can be enjoyed without effort and that, yes, please, I would like some more.

À votre santé,
Erik

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 07 Jun 2010 @ 07 09 AM

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 04 Jun 2010 @ 9:16 PM 

This post is a contribution to The Session, aka Beer Blogging Friday. This month’s topic is session beers hosted – hooray – here, by me.

Ever since I suggested the topic, I’ve been struggling with what I was going to write about it. I’ve noticed, with interest, bloggers from other countries noting that Americans are particularly worked up about the concept of session beers, which is interesting. To many other beer cultures, it’s probably a ridiculous concept that MOST of the beer available isn’t a session beer. Even in America that isn’t the case, though we do have a particularly large market for high-gravity and low attenuation.

So, I’ve been thinking about it. What is a session beer?

It’s not about low alcohol. After all, if that were the only criteria, BMC has session beer in spades and, sorry to say (or maybe happy to say), Bud Light is not a session beer for me.

It’s not the “more” factor that I’ve heard bandied about. Session beer, to me, is not about binge drinking. It’s not about the ability to over-consume.

No, to me I think what defines a session beer is a beer that I can enjoy without effort. It’s not a particular style of beer, or even a particular alcohol content, so much as it is accessibility. It is a beer that I can drink without having to think about – “What is that flavor?” “How is this made?” “What’s going on in this beer?”

My best example of this might be gueuze. It’s a low alcohol beer, it’s light, and it’s easy drinking, but it is not a session beer. It’s challenging and complex, and when I drink one I want to linger over it and examine it. I want to roll it around my mouth and look for more flavor. I want to savor it and drink it with food. I want to keep discovering more things about it, and while I think it’s delicious, that challenging complexity is what stops it from being a session beer to me.

It’s the same experience I have with most high-gravity selections. There’s a lot going on in each sip, and I want to enjoy it. Even when they’re deceptively easy drinking, they’re still a challenge. They still require thought and time to enjoy and savor.

And so I submit my definition for a session beer: it’s not about the strength, or the ability to drink a lot of it. It’s not bland beer or boring beer. It’s beer that can be enjoyed without effort, one that I can keep by my side during an evening with friends and still thoroughly enjoy every sip, even if I’m not paying attention to it.

And, in my opinion, that is what our current craft beer market could use more of.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 04 Jun 2010 @ 09 16 PM

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 03 Jun 2010 @ 10:30 AM 

If you’ve never started up a brewery before, as I haven’t, you may be interested to learn of what I think is the most interesting challenge up front. I’ve been thinking of it as the “Order of Operations” problem. Allow me to explain:

In order to sell make/beer, you need to be licensed by your state to do so. This process can take months, depending on your state.

In order to be licensed by your state to make/sell beer, you need to be licensed by the TTB to do so. This process can take months (they quote 95 days).

In order to be licensed by the TTB to make/sell beer, you need to have a place of business outside of your home.

In order to have a place of business outside of your home you need money to pay a lease.

Okay, now go!

This, all of the “construction” or “buy equipment” or “make good beer” crap aside, might be the single most prohibitive process I can think of in new brewery startup. Why? Because it means that you can’t make your product, aka make money, aka pay your expenses from cash flow, until months after you’ve begun paying rent and, quite possibly, paying people.

Can you begin building out your brewery while waiting for licensing to come through? Certainly, as long as you have a floor plan design in place that you can submit to the TTB, but new startup brewers beware: You need capital up front to be able to pay for MONTHS of operations before you have the slightest possibility of being able to make any money back to put into your bank account and start to pay off your debts.

The thing that I hear most in brewery startup is that the #1 reason for failure is under capitalization. Now, I can be snarky and say that that should apply for any business, but it seems to me that in many other businesses you probably don’t have to pay for months worth of space and utilities while simply waiting for a piece of paper to come in that says you’re allowed to actually make/sell your product. Maybe I’m wrong. I feel like yarn stores don’t have this kind of long startup period.

To be fair, I don’t know how this works if you’re starting a nanobrewery, say, out of your garage. When I talked to my state board, they were very explicit about having a place of business outside of your home, but maybe it’s because I’m applying for a wholesaler’s license right off the bat and they don’t want you to distribute out of your living room.

So, potential startups, there’s your first warning from startup land: Be ready to pay out up front and be ready to wait.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 03 Jun 2010 @ 10 30 AM

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