03 Aug 2017 @ 5:19 PM 

A little earlier this week, a good friend said to me: Hey. I’ve missed you writing on TopFermented. I figured with all of these acquisitions that you’d have something to say.

Sure, said I, I have a lot of thoughts, but not only am I busy as hell with the brewery these days, I also feel like I need to be a little more delicate with my words as President of the NC Craft Brewers Guild.

And then, lo, the muse gods answered all of our prayers and Anchor Brewing was acquired by Sapporo.

Since the last time I wrote a post here, disparaging ABI, a lot has happened in the M&A world of the craft brewing industry, most notably ABI’s acquisition of local NC darlings Wicked Weed, which seemed to hit home with a lot of people.

To me?  This one.

Why?  Well, because it looks a lot more like a signal than all of the others.  This brewery was first.  Fritz Maytag rescued Anchor from closing its doors in 1965 and effectively became the first craft brewery.  It’s been doing what we’re all doing for longer than anybody.  It was the model for so many breweries over the past 50 years.

On the other hand, it’s easy to forget that Fritz Maytag sold Anchor to Griffin Group, owners of BrewDog (hah, punks, sure thing fellas) and Skyy Vodka, way back in 2010, so no big shock that it was on the sale block as mergers and acquisitions are heating up in the beer industry.  You’ll see in the article that Keith Greggor, of the Griffin Group (and CEO of Anchor) said that “the move was a year in the making and the result of speaking with ‘many, many’ larger breweries all over the world to find the right fit.”

In fact, none of it is really a shock.  Many people in the industry are in the same space that Fritz came to in 2010:  In need of an exit strategy.  They’ve put their time in, they’ve grown their companies, they’ve done well by their employees, they’ve brought the brand they built into the world of success.  What else are you supposed to do?  Just close shop and lay everybody off?  Sell and go enjoy your grandkids, for gods sake.  Fritz was a pioneer in exit strategies just as he was in many other aspects of the craft industry.  He beat most everybody there by years.

Still – it feels like a larger symbol – this beacon of independence, innovation, and entrepreneurship is now just another brand swept up in the great brand homogenization of the past few years.  Like it or not, it’s part of an international corporation that will benefit by dragging sales away from small, local, independent producers.  From now on, when you buy an Anchor beer, that buck will ultimately stop at Sapporo Breweries, Toiso, Eniwa, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan.

So, you know, support your local international brewery.  Or just buy what tastes good, I guess.

Ultimately, that’s the most disappointing part of it to me.  Every time one of these happens, a big wave goes through the craft industry in which a bunch of people who say: “Who gives a shit? If it tastes good, who cares who makes it?”

Well, I do.

And, sure.  I am biased.  The vast majority of breweries who will have M&A as a viable exit strategy look very similar to the ones that have already been acquired:  Established, 15+ years old, growing, with a good on-site presence and wide distribution.  The vast majority of breweries who will suffer for it look a lot like mine:  Tiny, hyper local, battling with congested distribution markets and a variable tourism trade after 3 – 7 years of being open with 3000 new breweries behind us eagerly waiting to take our place.  It sure as shit matters to me.

It’s difficult to see our forefathers and our pioneers – our independent giants and captains of industry – slip away from us.  It feels like a betrayal to the innovative attitude that seduced all of us 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rounders into the industry in the first place – the dreams of working hard with your own hands to make a cool product has gotten lost in the fast paced factory.  It hurts to see someone you idolized as a successful entrepreneur and businessman just become another suit and tie.

But it’s what the future holds for our industry.

On the wall of my production floor here at Mystery, there’s a quote from Fritz Maytag that reads, “Beer doesn’t make itself by itself. It takes an element of mystery and things unknown.”  Most people think it’s how I named my brewery.  It isn’t.  But it speaks to me enormously about the product and the reason that many of us are in the industry itself.  It’s more than just a business to a lot of us, it’s our way of life, it’s our passion.

So, this week, I’ll go buy my last Anchor Steam.  I’ll hoist it in memory to the innovative business that Fritz Maytag once built, and I won’t look back, just like I’ve done with so many breweries lately.  Then, I’ll get back up on my brew deck and pour my heart and soul in.

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Categories: brewery, distribution, industry, Mystery Brewing Company, news, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 03 Aug 2017 @ 05 21 PM

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 23 Jul 2015 @ 11:37 AM 

It’s amazing just how complex my feelings are about the dumbest things. Not Your Father’s Root Beer is inexplicable to me.  Partially because I just really dislike root beer and I just can’t imagine drinking a whole bottle of this, and partially because of the witchcraft through which it hath been wrought.NYFRB-Bottle

Drinkers apparently love itThe press loves it.

Except for the handful who are decent journalists and smell something fishy.

Here, I’ll save you the trouble of clicking on those links (but please do if you have the time).

1. Incredibly high ratings on RateBeer, alone, but especially within style.

2. Fortune, Time, Bloomberg, and Consumerist posts about how alcoholic root beer is “The Beer of the Year” and the best thing EVAR.

3.  Boston Globe and Philly Inquirer pieces revealing that Small Town Brewery isn’t a Small Town Brewery, but a subsidiary of Phusion brands, the fine folks who brought you Four Loko and that it’s probably going to be acquired by Pabst.

Before I go into my problems on this, let me just get this off of my chest:  Not Your Father’s Root Beer is no more beer than actual root beer is.  It’s a Flavored Malt Beverage, an Alcopop.  It’s made in a factory that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice among other things.  And I’m not telling you not to like it.  I’m telling you to stop calling it a craft beer.  It’s no more a craft beer than Twisted Tea or Bacardi Breezer, or Hooch, or, you know, root beer.

Y’all know that root beer isn’t actually beer, right?  The guy who first commercialized root beer was active in the temperance movement and wanted to make Hires “Root Tea”.  He called it “beer” to appeal to the working classes and to stop them from drinking alcohol.  It’s just marketing.  It’s always been a sham.

I don’t even doubt that Small Town Brewery is what it purports to be or that it doesn’t make an array small of craft beers.  For all I know, the original location in Wauconda still does on its 3 bbl system.  But that product that you see in stacks on the floor at WalMart?  That is being released en masse in 30+ states?  Not on your freakin’ life.  I hope that Tim Kovac is getting enough in royalties and residuals on this to at least finally quit his day job, because it’s a masterful turn that I am, frankly, quite jealous of.

But why not admit it?  Why not take pride in it?

The chicanery that Phusion and phriends have used to convince drinkers that NYFRB is a craft beer is, frankly, incredible and awe inspiring, and for a little while I was puzzled by it.  Why be ashamed of what you are?  Mike’s Hard Lemonade doesn’t try to be something it isn’t.  Why is NYFRB doing this?  But I think I get it:  Earn the trust of the craft beer nerds and a lot of people who aren’t sure about what to think fall into place.  Look at the comments on this page.  It’s described as “liquid gold”, “a small taste of heaven”, “nectar of the gods”.  It boggles the mind.  It’s fucking root beer.  But when you’ve got the snobs in a tizzy everybody else leans over and takes a look.

What this is really teaching us is 1) The majority of craft beer nerds could give two shits about who makes their beer, or even, apparently, if it’s beer.  2) Most people think that “craft beer” means “not light lager” (thank you Stone).  3) People love soda.

And now let me tell you a story about grocery stores and what products like NYFRB mean to small breweries.

Grocery stores are funny places for beer.

The next time you’re in a grocery store, count the number of facings there are for just Bud Light.  Notice that there are full cold boxes dedicated to Bud Light.  They’ve got a 12 pack showing long-side and short-side in packaging so that it can fit a whole shelf.  They’ve got 12 oz cans, 16 oz cans, 12 oz bottles, 12 oz long-neck bottles, single cans, single bottles, beer balls, party packs, drink your way out of a swimming pool kits, etc., etc.  Then there’s a stack in the shape of a recliner and a television to celebrate the fact that football season starts in 2 months.

Just Bud Light.  Now start looking at Budweiser, and Bud sub-brands.  Lime-a-ritas, etc.

Now, who do you suppose puts all of those facings up?  If your answer is “the grocery store” you’re wrong.

Grocery store beer coolers and shelves are decided roughly twice per year at a corporate level.  Fortunately, both AB-InBev and MillerCoors pay the salaries of people who actually work for the grocery store corporate offices and specialize in building grocery store sets.  There’s software for it.  The contents of the shelves are decided down to the inch.  Occasionally there’s a bit of manager’s discretion for local brands.  A few chains have some local initiatives, but don’t think that the big guys are losing much space for that.

On an individual grocery store level? Those guys don’t stock the shelves, either.  That’s done by distributors.  When you see somebody walking through the grocery store aisles restocking beer, or fixing the way something is sitting on a shelf, take note of what they’re wearing.  It’s probably a polo shirt from a local distributor.  They are trying as hard as they can to get as many brands from their distributor on the shelf as possible because that’s how they get paid.

Why am I talking about grocery stores?  Because the only real way to make money in beer is by selling a LOT of it.  Margins are paper thin.  Volume sales are where it’s at.  And grocery store chains equal volume.  There are 37,716 grocery stores in the US (or were at the end of 2014).  If, by some miracle, you could sell only case of 12 oz bottles in each one of those once per month through a whole year, ignoring any other sales outlet, you’d be making 33,000 bbls of beer.  That is roughly the size of the large regional craft brewery in your area.  There are 90 breweries that size or larger in the U.S., out of 3500.  Fewer than 2 per state.

Next, go find out how many actual craft brands your grocery store carries.  I bet it’s fewer than 90 in most stores.  Make sure you don’t count any of these brands or any of these brands or any of these brands or any of these brands.  It’s a fun exercise.

Grocery stores, like beer reviewers on the internet, don’t really care who makes beer.  They care about sales.  They want to know that sku A sold faster than sku B.  The next time shelves are edited, sku A gets more space, sku B gets less.  That’s it.  It is, yes, why Bud Light has so much space and won’t lose it.  It’s also why small breweries have a hard time with shelf space: because they’re not instantly recognizable; people who aren’t sure about what they’re buying avoid them.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s a limited amount of space for beer in grocery stores.  It doesn’t really change.  There are, however, a LOT more breweries, to the tune of 100% growth in the past five-ish years.  Space is a premium.  The largest challenges to a craft brewer today are shelf space and tap space.  They are difficult and expensive to get and even more difficult to keep, because every day there is someone at your heels saying, “Hey, want to try this? It’s NEW. You should sell it.”

When something like NYFRB comes along, an alcopop disguised as a craft beer, a mass-market beverage disguised as a small time brewery, what I see is danger.  Why?  Because not only is it being bought by the people who don’t know and don’t care, it’s being bought by the people who DO care.  Because the elaborate ruse that Phusion and Small Town Brewery have engaged in through their incredible (and expensive) PR firm is masterful and has fooled an enormous amount of people from drinkers to journalists.  Craft beer stores that would normally never carry alcopops are buying it by the pallet – and why wouldn’t they?  It’s like instant money.

But, make no mistake.  Every time NYFRB or something like it comes into a store as a craft beer, something else goes out.  And since people have no problem buying the ever living shit out of it, they’re guaranteeing that there’s one less spot for a small, local brewery to inhabit in the future.

So, sure.  If it’s good, drink it.  Who gives a shit, right?  Get TRASHED.  You’re an AMERICAN.

But don’t be fooled.

Know the choice that you’re making and what it means.  And don’t call yourself a craft beer fan if you don’t care.  Let the small breweries know who their fans and allies really are.

 

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Tags Categories: distribution, industry, marketing, media, news, op-ed Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Jul 2015 @ 11 37 AM

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 16 Mar 2012 @ 2:05 PM 

There are a couple of reasons that I’ve been so quiet here this spring. One of which, given my most recent posts, should be obvious: this brewery that I started up. As it turns out, those take a whole lot of your time. It’s a little insane. It’s fun, but it doesn’t leave much time for public musing.

The other reason that I’ve been so busy is because of this book that I wrote. You can buy it online or at many bookstores, bottleshops, or breweries around North Carolina.

Well, now that both of those are essentially wrapped up, I’m still going to be busy. But! This is the type of busy where I can actually see people, and hopefully have the time to write a little on the side. So, just in case you want to say hi and share a pint here’s where you can find me in the next two months:

Thursday, April 12, 6PM – 8PM: Book Launch Party @ Mystery Brewing Company
437 Dimmocks Mill Road, Suite #41
Hillsborough, NC 27278
www.mysterybrewing.com

Saturday, April 14, 12PM – 11PM: All About Beer’s World Beer Festival Raleigh

Tuesday, April 17, 8PM: Fullsteam Brewery
726 Rigsbee Avenue
Durham, NC 27701
919-682-BEER
www.fullsteam.ag

Wednesday, April 18, 4:30PM – 7:00 PM: Bottle Revolution
4025 Lake Boone Trail
Raleigh, NC 27607
919-885-HOPS
www.bottlerevolution.com

Thursday, April 19, 5:30 PM – 8:00 PM: Olde Hickory Tap Room
222 Union Square
Hickory, NC 28601
828-322-1965
www.oldehickorytaproom.com

Saturday, April 21, 12PM – 6PM: Hickory Hops

Wednesday, April 25, 7PM – 9PM: Carrboro Beverage Company
102A East Main Street
Carrboro, NC 27510
919-942-3116
www.carrborobeverage.com

Friday, April 27, 4PM – 6PM: Cape Fear Wine & Beer
139 North Front Street
Wilmington, NC 28401
910-7663-3377
www.capefearwineandbeer.net

Wednesday, May 9, 6PM: Foothills Brewing
638 West Fourth Street
Winston-Salem, NC
336-777-3348
www.foothillsbrewing.com

Thursday, May 24, 6PM: Olde Mecklenberg Brewing Company
215 Southside Drive
Charlotte, NC 28217
704-525-5644
www.oldmeckbrew.com

Wednesday, May 31, 7:30 PM: Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café
55 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
828-254-6734
www.malaprops.com

Thursday, June 1, 4PM – 7PM: Hops and Vines
797 Haywood Road, Suite 100
Asheville, NC 28806
828-252-5275

You can also find this schedule on this page which will be updated regularly as the schedule is updated.

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Categories: industry, media, Mystery Brewing Company, nc beer book, news, travel
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 16 Mar 2012 @ 03 07 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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Categories: brewery, distribution, industry, NC Beer, news, op-ed, taxation
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 09 Sep 2011 @ 03 44 PM

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