03 Dec 2012 @ 10:03 PM 

Just what exactly IS the three-tier system? Is it good or bad? Why do some people seem to hate it, and if it’s so awful, why do so many people use it?

All this, plus Mystery’s search for distribution and why we ultimately decided that self-distribution wasn’t for us.

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Categories: distribution, industry, podcast
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 03 Dec 2012 @ 10 03 PM

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 07 Nov 2011 @ 7:24 PM 

I’m a little late off the mark on this, since the article that I’m responding to was actually written days ago, and really had a fair amount of buzz over the weekend. Still, since through some fluke of internettery or bad programming I’m unable to post my feelings in the comments of article, you get to read my thoughts here.

This is in response to the article posted on Bon Appetit‘s website named (le sigh) Why Beer Growlers are Bad for your Brew

The first thing I’d like to point out is that the URL to the article is actually “Garrett Oliver Thinks Growlers…” and I bet the next work is “Suck”, but that apparently didn’t meet the “sweeping generalization in order to get as many eyes as possible” criteria. Good job. It worked. I wish it wouldn’t have.

It’s raised a bit of ire around beer blogs and on Beer Advocate, and one of the commenters on the article itself poses the interesting question of “Why would anyone ever be so emotionally committed to growlers that it would ever induce such outrage?”

I can’t say it’s outrage, but it definitely makes me feel a bit.. well.. exasperated. Garrett Oliver really did write the book on beer. Well… he edited it, anyway, despite numerous errors, and his opinion carries weight, even when it seems like a quick one-off bullshit answer to some guy who he’s drinking with. Because after you’ve written the book on beer, your slightest opinions get repeated like this:

“Oh, well, Garrett Oliver says [poorly translated version of what Garrett Oliver actually said taken immediately as the holy fucking gospel].”

It’s especially bad when it’s repeated by a magazine like Bon Appetit, even if it is a bullshit one-off name-dropping blog post by some guy who was probably just desperate to meet an editing deadline, because people who trust Bon Appetit (who are likely people who buy good, craft beer) are likely to come away with:

“Oh, well, I read in Bon Appetit that Garrett Oliver says [something incredibly inaccurate which will be taken as an unbreakable law that only a basilisk’s tooth dipped in unicorn tears could possibly destroy].”

So, let’s hear it for journalistic integrity on the internet in 2011!

(crickets)

I can tell you why people would get emotional about it – for some small breweries, growlers can be a life saver. Packaging lines (bottles, cans) are expensive, and growlers can be a great way for new and/or small breweries to get product into locations, like grocery stores, or maybe even people’s homes, in a way that kegs just can’t do on a large scale basis. It’s not emotional, it’s defensive.

At Mystery, we’re counting on growler sales to help us through our startup, and I’m hoping that they constitute a large portion of our sales. That said, we’re planning using a counter-pressure growler filler to make sure that they’re packaged correctly instead of urinating directly into each one, as Garrett Oliver would have Andrew Knowlton have you believe. And I would never, EVER fill a dirty growler. Dirty growlers should be traded out for clean ones. I have the tools to clean growlers in ways that most people do not in their homes, and ultimately, I am represented best by giving you excellent beer.

But to address a big issue in the article of “the pros hate growlers”. Ugh. Are growlers ideal ways to package beer? No. But I don’t hate them.

Here’s what I hate: I hate it when bottle shops have beer sitting warm on shelves. I hate it when they have beer sitting near fluorescent lights. I hate it when they don’t pull beer off of the shelves after 90 days. I hate it when bars don’t clean their tap lines, or when they serve beer in frosted mugs, or shove a faucet into a beer while it’s being poured, or don’t give me a new glass when I order a new beer. I hate it when bars don’t have dishwashers that get hot enough to clean lipstick off of glassware, or wash their glassware in the same dishwasher as their food dishes.

All of those things can have a detrimental effect on the flavor and presentation of a beer and all of those are way, way, WAY more common than someone filling a dirty growler or filling one so incorrectly that the consumer will notice a difference, assuming they consume it while it’s still fresh.

But I can’t control those other things. I can, as a brewer, control the quality of the growlers that leave my establishment. I can make sure they’re clean and they’re filled properly – just like any packaging brewer would do for ANY packaged beer product.

I’d like to see an actual well-researched, well-considered followup article by Bon Appetit about this, but I’m sure it just won’t happen.

This piece of pseudo-journalism will go on misinforming in droves. It might seem silly, but these little one-off things coming from a source that people trust can be very damaging to small businesses. It’s already being repeated, and all it takes is one more journalist who doesn’t know how to research (which I’m starting to believe is most of them) to make this opinion law by referencing it in some wider reaching periodical.

Come on Bon Appetit, do what’s right and fix your crappy journalism by actually doing some work on the story. I’m issuing you a challenge. Write a good story on beer packaging. Your readership deserves it.

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 09 Sep 2011 @ 3:31 PM 

A brief editorial piece on the website “AshVegas” caught my eye this morning, asking Should Asheville officials offer tax breaks for a [New Belgium] brewery?

I find myself roiling with thoughts and light rage, and so I’m doing what I always do in these situations: write.

Let’s set the stage to begin: New Belgium is working on opening an East Coast plant to cut down on shipping costs on their quest for country-wide domination distribution. There are lots of rumors about Asheville being on their short list of cities to open the plant in and, of course, New Belgium has neither confirmed nor denied these reports (to my meager knowledge).

I have really conflicting feelings about New Belgium. On one hand, they are some of the early pioneers in the craft industry and the industry as a whole has a lot to thank them for. They are leaders in brewing science and innovation. They produce high quality beer and are responsible for a whole LOT of craft beer lovers finding their way to industry in general. They are known as an excellent place to work and they have a strong commitment to being environmentally friendly and generally pretty awesome.

They also have some of the most invasive marketing and distribution tactics I’ve seen in craft. When New Belgium pushes into markets (as they recently did in North Carolina) with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and sponsorship deals, small, local breweries cannot possibly hope to compete with them. Who sponsors the “local beer, local band” night around the corner from me? New Belgium. Who sells beer at the “Best of the Indy” parties? New Belgium. Who has been at every freakin’ local event before almost every local craft brewery? New Belgium. Why? Because in a morally dubious pay-to-play environment, they have the cash to pay – and pay a LOT – where small local breweries do not.

Is New Belgium the only brewery who does this? No. Good heavens, no. But in North Carolina, they were nowhere one day and everywhere the next, forcefully filling the niche I would have expected a lot of local breweries to fill. While most of that is their distribution partner, New Belgium also doesn’t seem to be in any sort of rush to stop those practices, either.

So, now maybe they’ll actually be a local brewery and that makes me a little sad and a little angry. They feel like a threat to our growing and thriving local beer industry, primarily because they have the ability and the apparent lack of scruples to muscle small business out of the way where they need to.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the ludicrous idea of offering them tax breaks to move in. The fact that it’s New Belgium makes no difference. My position would be the same for any large brewery moving in; however, the fact that it’s New Belgium in this case does feel a little like insult upon injury.

Tax breaks designed to entice big business is the kind of topic that drives me nuts regardless of industry, but in this specific case – and in MY industry – it seems even more ridiculous than usual. The idea, of course, is that Asheville would give tax breaks to New Belgium to entice them to open a brewery in the area, thereby creating jobs (and tax revenue).

Asheville, look around. You already have 9 breweries in you including the largest craft brewery in the state. Are you giving them tax breaks? Can you imagine how many jobs you could create by easing the tax burden on the businesses that are already there, already a part of your community, and already employing your local population? Instead of throwing money at a business coming in from another state (where most of that money will go), giving a large company with deep pockets even deeper pockets and an advantageous position over your local businesses, why not reward your local businesses for the excellent job that they’ve already done for you?

The local breweries in Asheville, along with its craft-beer-loving populace, have already brought country-wide attention and recognition to the area. Asheville has earned the moniker “Beer City USA” not because of its tax breaks, but because of its (stay with me here, this might get complex) beer. Why on earth would you, as a city council, make it easier to bring a small-business-crushing competitor to town? Sure, you might create jobs in the short term, but in the long run how is that one brewery opening going to effect the already existing breweries in your city and the already existing jobs? How many jobs could you create by reducing the tax burden on the businesses that already exist and thrive in your city, helping them open up new distribution channels, and grow enough to be able to stand up to the largest of breweries?

Tax breaks for incoming industries only make sense when you’re enticing an industry that doesn’t already exist into an area that economically depressed. Neither of these conditions seem true in Asheville.

Here’s the thing: If New Belgium is going to open a brewery in North Carolina, they’ll do it whether or not there’s a tax incentive thrown at them. They’re coming, and the best thing that we can possibly do is fortify our local industry so that we can welcome them as an equal level competitor, an enrichment of the local market. Giving them tax breaks that our local businesses do not enjoy is just inviting a fox into the hen house.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 09 Sep 2011 @ 03 44 PM

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 13 Jun 2011 @ 11:13 AM 

You know, I’ve been struggling with this for a while. Do I like cans or don’t I? I keep hearing so much about how good cans are for craft beer, and from a theory standpoint I totally agree. There’s no light, there’s no oxygen egress – they’re basically just little kegs for your beer. How can you go wrong? At the same time, a significant number of the canned beers I’ve had have either been oxidized or unintentionally sour – and these from breweries that I have a great respect for outside of that can. If cans are so much better for craft, how can good breweries be making bad beer?

I’ve written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more bought beer than I’d care to – has changed my thoughts on the matter. So now I present to you the reasons why I don’t like cans and why you probably won’t see a canning line in my brewery for a while.

1) I’m not convinced that craft canning lines have less oxygen. Not to say that some don’t – but a lot of craft canning lines are going to look a lot like this one:

Note: Nothing against Caldera Brewing Company – they probably make fine beer, I’ve never had it – but their canning line is an excellent example of what I’m skeptical about. And the video IS three years old, so maybe I’m just looking at old technology, but considering some people are using bottling lines that are older than I am I suspect that there’s not a ton of upgrades across the industry.

Here’s what I’m interested in – the point between 0:13 and 0:54 – between when the cans are being purged by CO2, filled, and the lid is applied. Let me describe in words what I’m seeing here. This line fills 5 cans at a time. As the cans move down the line, they are purged with CO2 – which is what those first 5 fillers are doing when they dip into the can. Purging with CO2 is basically just pushing a shot of carbon dioxide into the can on the theory that since CO2 is heavier than air, and that you’re pushing from the bottom, that CO2 will somehow completely displace the oxygen in the vessel. The cans are then moved down the line to the second set of fillers which fills the cans with beer, and does what is known as “fobbing.” FOB, by the way, stands for Foam on Beer. The theory on fobbing is that if there is foam over the top of the beer that you are somehow not allowing oxygen to contact the beer itself. (Never mind that oxygen is in contact with the foam which has a much larger surface area than the beer and that foam has had much of its CO2 released already removing much of whatever protective barrier that gas might create.) The fillers are removed from the cans and that foam is pulled back into the can whilst the filler drips beer through the open air back down into the can itself. Finally, a lid is kind of slapped on from a roller trapping in all that oxygeny goodness.

Sure, you may not get much oxygen into the can AFTER it’s sealed, but before it’s sealed you’re pretty much just slopping it in there, at least on this type of line. What’s more? Most craft breweries don’t pasteurize, which means that the shelf life on these beers is starting to get perilously low. If you get ’em cold and fresh? They’re probably awesome. But throw them in a warehouse, in the back of a hot truck bouncing down the road, and on an unrefrigerated end cap display in a grocery store somewhere, and I bet your shelf life is down to something like 2 weeks before you start getting stale or sour flavors in there.

Necessary caveats: I know not every canning line is like this, and I know the process is going to differ brewery to brewery and that’s going to make a hell of a difference. I’m using this as my “probably industry average” example. Why? Because canning lines are expensive and sometimes you buy the less expensive equipment so that you can get something in place faster. Sometimes you get the less ideal equipment because you’re getting a deal on it. Because nobody’s going to buy the top shelf option every time. Because I know that for every person in the industry that is fanatical about making sure that everything is perfect, there is another person out there in the industry who is kinda lazy about the way they’re getting part of their process done. After all, this is all somebody’s job. When was the last time that you went through your work day and never cut a corner on anything? Sometimes, all you want to do is go home at 4:30 so that you can get to the beach, or pick your kids up from school, or whatever, and a little extra oxygen pickup be damned.

Final word – there’s probably a good case to say that once beer is in the can it’s a great packaging material, but process and equipment are too inconsistent at a craft level for me to believe that it is true in every case.

2) Cans lack elegance. This is a small re-hash of one of the articles that I’ve written previously about cans. No matter how pretty your art is, when somebody is out on a romantic date at a nice restaurant, they’re not going to be getting canned beer. They’re probably not even going to see an option for it, because I suspect most nice restaurants – the places that really should be about getting good beer to go with good food – will most likely not buy cans unless they’re there for a novelty. I think it’s a long way in the future before a can sits next to a wine bottle at a white-linen type restaurant.

Cans are good for the beach. They’re good for public parks. They’re good for hiking. Otherwise, they’re no different than bottles. Are those three markets really going to take a brewery to the next level? I have my doubts.

3) Cans are BMC territory, and they can out-can us. Like it or not, craft beer as a market segment poses more and more of a threat to the likes of ABI and MillerCoors, and if there’s something I know about those guys, they’ve got cans down pat. They don’t have extra oxygen pickup in their cans – you know why? Because they can in an oxygenless environment, because they can afford one. As craft becomes more of a threat to the big guys, it becomes more and more likely that they’re going to enter a craft-like offering into the market. The more we emulate them in our packaging options, the more options we give them to be able to take market share back from us.

Doubt me? Consider that Blue Moon as a single brand outsells most of the craft breweries in the country. You can get Blue Moon in a can, now, too.

4) I am turned off by blind faith and hype. In high school I used to get in trouble for not taking whatever my teachers told me as fact. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was going through entrepreneur training.

I cannot wrap my head around blindly believing what people tell me without seeing evidence for it myself (especially if those people are trying to sell me something) – and I say this as a person who is fairly trusting in nature. What’s even worse is when I see large groups of people automatically believing something that I see as probably a sales pitch – that’s when my knee-jerk reaction to disagree sets in, and that’s where I am with cans.

I have not, thus far, been presented with data that suggests that cans are nearly as awesome for craft beer as I see publicized, primarily because – as I stated earlier – process and equipment are too inconsistent right now. So why does that put me in the “no cans” camp? Because from the outside of the package, I can’t tell what’s inside. That means I won’t touch any of them. I have had too many cans from breweries that I trust – and you trust – that have been obviously spoiled in a way that I think they would consider unacceptable.

My trust for the can marketplace has been broken, and it will take some serious science to bring me back around.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Jun 2011 @ 11 18 AM

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 28 Mar 2011 @ 9:53 AM 

Like every other beer blogger in the world, I’m here to comment on the breaking news this morning of Anheuser-Busch’s take over of Goose Island. There’s a lot of romantic talk around about how this comes on the heels of a week of lovey camaraderie known as the Craft Brewers Conference, but we really should have seen this coming a mile away. Goose Island hasn’t been qualified as a “craft brewer” under the BA’s definition for a while now, precisely because the ownership stake that Anheuser-Busch has had in it has violated the “Independent” clause. It was really just a matter of time before this happened.

Contemplating the possible future meaning of this deal is, however, a little terrifying. Goose Island has been a front runner in quality craft for a while, now. They are technically brilliant and make some of the best known sour and barrel aged beers in the market. Will the quality of the beer go down with financial backing of A-B-I? It seems unlikely, given that most of the people in the company will stay in their place (sans, apparently, Greg Hall).

This gives A-B-I an array of new tools in their toolbox to compete with the ever encroaching craft market. There’s no way that they’re blind to the fact that they’ve been losing market share on their core products while craft has seen double-digit growth each year. This deal shows that plainly.

What really terrifies me is the thought that this is the first A-B-I takover, but I am positive it will not be the last. In the coming years we are sure to see a lot of larger craft breweries get gobbled up by the big players in the market. It’s been happening in Europe for years. Why should America be exempt?

Once that starts happening, what does that mean for the small craft market? We cannot compete, on any level, with the international marketing machines that are the world’s largest breweries.

Something that I think many in the craft market forget: Most consumers don’t care where their beer comes from, even the big beer geeks. The Beer Advocate boards are full of people saying, “So long as the beer is good, I don’t care who makes it.” It’s a lesson that small craft brewers need to sit up and pay attention to. More than ever, especially as A-B-I starts looking for acquisition targets, the enemy of the small craft brewer begins to become the large craft brewer. They’re already the ones coming into each state and taking up hard won shelf space and tap handles. When those large craft breweries start to become arms of the big brewers, who already have undue influence over many distributors, how are we possibly going to compete?

So, indeed, after the love fest of the last week – what will this ultimately mean for our big craft brewing happy family?

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Tags Categories: distribution, industry, marketing, news, op-ed Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 28 Mar 2011 @ 12 49 PM

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