You know, it’s been a while since I’ve had a good rant.
I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Since becoming the President of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, I’ve often felt like it’s probably not the best idea in the world to be the guy that pops up the rash ranty blog posts. After all, we’ve seen what happens when I make large sweeping statements. But I feel like there needs to be another voice out there about North Carolina beer politics that isn’t a 3rd party covering us, especially one that’s quoting the NCBWWA without contacting oh, you know, a brewer for an opinion.
So, let’s talk about NC Beer. And to be clear, and safe I guess, this is me, as a person. This is not an Official Statement by the Brewers’ Guild. This isn’t a Mystery Brewing company statement. This is me, elucidating my thoughts in the only way that I know: writing.
If you’ve been following along in NC lately, you might know that there have been a couple of bills that were up for discussion in committee. Here they are:
House Bill 278: Its sole purpose is to raise the self-distribution cap from 25,000 bbls/year to 100,000 bbls/year. That’s it. Small change to small change. To put it in perspective, NC distributors delivered just about 6 million barrels of beers two years ago (and undoubtedly much more than that now). Based on their reaction to this bill, the .04% that they don’t have access to is an enormous threat to their livelihood and must be stopped at all costs.
House Bill 625: A multi-purpose bill meant to make contract brewing legal in North Carolina, and meant to make Alternating Propietorship (which is a form of contracting) legal in North Carolina. The bill also allowed brewery taprooms to serve wine without the requirement of serving food. The sponsor of the bill also included a provision that would mean that on-site pint sales would not count toward the self-distribution cap. Fun fact: Not only are contracting brewing and AP brewing legal on a Federal level, they are also legal for NC wineries, just not breweries. In fact, because it is specifically allowed for wineries, it is not allowed for breweries because our law states that anything that is not specifically allowed shall be prohibited. Guilty until proven innocent. The American way.
Here’s the truth about both of these bills, regardless of what that Brewbound article might tell you: Dead on arrival. No chance. Not a prayer that they would even pass through committee to get to the floor of a chamber for a vote. Why? Money in politics. It’s that simple.
But hey, I’m supposed to be ranting, right? Let’s rant.
Frankly, it’s the Brewbound article that set me off. The hubris. The utter hubris. The idea that somehow we, the brewers, were so goddamned concerned with this stupid “anonymous” website that we somehow couldn’t keep up with the legislation. What utter and total bullshit. The bills were dead before the website published. And while, sure, we spent some time getting a followup website online, to think that it was the all-consuming effort is insane.
In fact, a few days after the “misdirection play”, I – and good number of other brewers – spent the entire day in Raleigh talking with our representatives and senators about our breweries, our local economy, and the bills that were important to us before inviting them all down to a reception at the Lt. Governor’s office which was attended by quite a few them. Come to think of it, over the course of the day, we didn’t mention the website at all.
What we did mention is that small brewers in North Carolina are the local economy. We put people to work. When people buy our beer, the money stays local. We reinvest in our communities and we help grow and revitalize our towns and cities. We bring tourism dollars into the state and keep them here. We were met with good support. Republicans were supportive, Democrats were supportive. I mean, look – beer is pretty bipartisan. You can enjoy an IPA no matter what color tie you’re wearing.
The only negative feedback we received all day was from the committee chair of Alcoholic Beverage Control. You know, the guy that’s in charge of reading our bill in committee and passing it along to the floor where it can get voted on by everyone else? Weird to see where the largest part of his campaign funding comes from. (Click the “As a candidate” tab and check that Top Donors item.) I know that correlation does not equal causation, but it’s hard not to draw that line. Well, that and the fact that he gave me verbatim talking points from the NCBWWA playbook before I even made an ask. It felt pretty goddamned obvious.
But hey, look. That’s politics. Money talks, and we’re busy reinvesting in our businesses and our communities, not buying politicians or putting up anonymous slanderous websites. So, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage.
No, the hubris and misinformation that somehow we fell for some petty “misdirection” while the NCBWWA were doing an end-run around us is insulting and a gross mischaracterization. The truth is that the bills were already functionally dead due to pressure applied to politicians outside of the public eye. That they are now claiming some kind of amazing victory, as if they were some sort of underdog and we were struck dumb by their dazzling display of chicanery in the form of something that simple, is mind-boggling and naive.
On the upside, I get to write a blog post now. And I’ve really been ignoring my blog.
The Blatant Lack of Support
A large portion of the brewers in North Carolina and ALL of the brewers who distribute into North Carolina from out of state are represented by a distributor.
I guess we see how they really feel about us.
We talk a lot about how we’re partners, about how we’re all in this together. Craft is pretty much the only growing segment of the beer industry. It’s growing so much that the beer segment as a whole continues to grow despite the declining sales of International Lager. We represent a good source of income for distributors (though admittedly still a small portion for many) and, frankly, we are the future of the industry.
We’re really starting to see that partnership means pretty much jack shit to our partners.
I’ve had multiple breweries in the past two weeks tell me that the “misdirection” website has made them re-think their decision to go to distribution.
The distributor that I use for my brewery, who I feel I have a wonderful relationship with, is owned by a Senator. One of the executives of the distributor is on the Board of the NCBWWA. I truly enjoy the people that I work with and they’ve been fantastic partners, but are the NCBWWA’s actions indicative of how my distributor sees our relationship working? That instead of growing together and facing the future as partners who want to see the industry grow and prosper, our brewery is part of a faction to be trampled and controlled? That we’re somehow untrustworthy and irresponsible? What am I supposed to think now?
If you’re a startup brewer, do the actions of the wholesaler lobby truly make you want to sign your business over right now? If you’re one of the self-distributing breweries in the state that’s currently approaching the self-distribution cap, could you feel good about signing on with a distributor right now? Would you want to do anything other than fight? If a brewery reaches that cap and is forced by law to turn over their entire production capacity to a distributor, could they do it with anything other than enmity?
“We Have the Best Beer Laws in the South”
Yes. We do. You’re right. That’s us. The skinny kid at fat camp.
Seriously. This is an argument we’re given. “We have the most progressive laws in the South!” Sure we do. We also lead the smallest group in the country and have some of the highest excise taxes on beer. So.. yay us! We can settle for less!
We’re number 42! We’re number 42!
You know what I want for my business? A competitive disadvantage against the breweries who are importing into our state! Yeah! Woo! Go us!
It’s the biggest joke.
Sure. Every other state in the South wants our laws. Do you know what I want? I want Colorado’s. Our excise tax is 775% higher than theirs is. They have great self-distribution rights, permissive taproom and pub laws, and a kegerator in the Governor’s mansion. They don’t even have gated access to beer on Sunday mornings. They have incredibly successful breweries AND distributors. Both. They only have half of our population, but an economic impact from craft beer that more than doubles ours.
Yes, by all means. Let’s settle for less. Why try to be successful?
The Ridiculous Idea that Brewers Are Trying to Bring Down the 3-Tier System
I bring this up because so much of the rhetoric that I see spouted lately has to do with this fantastical idea that small breweries want to do away with the 3-tier system, like somehow we happen to be small business owners, entrepreneurs, AND colossal idiots. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We have the 3-tier system to thank for the amazing proliferation of craft beer. It’s true. I wouldn’t be drinking a beer from California right now without it. No brewery wants to do away with it.
However, that doesn’t mean that the current state of franchise law isn’t anti-competitive and unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also believe that breweries who want to distribute their own product should be able to do so. Just because a distributor “can’t understand why someone who wants to grow would choose a different route to market” doesn’t mean that “illegal” is the only other option. That’s the basis of free enterprise: People are free to make decisions that you might think are stupid.
But the truth is, many of us DO rely on the middle tier. We appreciate it and use it because what we want to do is focus on making beer, not run a trucking or logistics company. But here’s the thing: That’s our decision. Somewhere (nearby), somebody does want to run a trucking and logistics company, and they also want to make the beer. They believe (rightly) that they are better represented in the market when they are the ones to sell their own product. It should be their decision to make, always, regardless of whether or not a competitor understands it.
The Lack of Foresight and Accountability
100% true: I cannot figure out for the life of me why distributors and brewers are on opposite sides. We all want the same thing: Success in our business, more beer on the market. With the exception of the ability to serve wine in my pub without Hot Pockets on the menu, the bills that are listed up above do nothing but help distributors. More beer in breweries = more beer for distributors to sell = more money. It’s the easiest damn equation ever.
I can’t figure out why members of the NCBWWA aren’t calling their association saying, “Please stop. You are hurting our business.” Because that’s exactly what’s happening.
They’re losing face. They’re losing potential suppliers, and they’re losing potential sales. The crazy idea that contract brewing is somehow a way to get around the self-distribution cap is ludicrous. Brewers use it to grow. The largest contracter in the state? MillerCoors. They contracted Sam Adams for years. They have an Alternating Propietorship relationship with their own sub-company, Blue Moon. They use a distributor. When Highland was moving from their basement brewery in downtown Asheville into their new facility, they used contracting to grow their capacity so that they could pick up brewing on a much larger system seamlessly. They use a distributor. Carolina Beer and Beverage contracted for years before the sale to Foothills. They used a distributor. There are at least two other breweries in North Carolina that are currently contracting that move 100% of their product through a distributor. Contracting is a tool for successful brands, it’s a means of startup, it gets more beer on the market, which is almost exclusively carried by a distributor in the state. How can the distributors logically explain fighting it?
The “end run around the distribution cap” argument is a red herring that anybody should be able to see through, especially a distributor. I cannot figure out why distributors don’t hold their own organization more accountable for the actions it takes and, most importantly, the tone that is being set in the marketplace with suppliers. It’s insulting, demeaning, and derogatory.
Yes, there are some breweries that want to self-distribute as much as they possibly can in the state. Yes, those breweries represent beer on the market that isn’t controlled by a distributor somewhere. Yes, it is a ridiculously small amount of beer by comparison and, yes, it always will be even at 100,000 bbls. It also doesn’t mean that those self-distributing breweries won’t use a distributor for some of their operation at some point. Maybe the successful brewer in Asheville doesn’t want to have a logistics arm to drive beer 7 hours to the Outer Banks, but really wants to distribute there. Are you really going to say no to an established and known brand who wants to use you for distribution?
Well, not when they’re mandated to use you by state law, I guess.
But the reality is that most, if not all, of those guys will never go down that path. Especially after the past couple of weeks, and the intensely negative posturing toward self-distributed breweries. They’ll find another way. They’ll limit their growth. They won’t lay off workers, liquidate equipment, and sign 30% of their revenue over to somebody they don’t feel they can trust with their life’s savings, with their babies.
Look, I understand that the real issue is power. The real issue is that someone is scared to death of change and the unpredictability of the future, but you know what? It’s coming. It’s that simple. Change will happen. It’s unavoidable. It’s the only constant. We can all grow together and prosper or we can do it through pain and fire and brimstone. We can go through nasty tactics, threats, and slimy actions, or we can work together to set a precedent for the rest of the country.
Come on NCBWWA, do you want to be leaders or do you want to settle for less? You have nothing to lose and so, so much to gain by actually being good partners.
I tell people all the time that North Carolina is one of the best places in the country to have a beer. I’m proud of the breweries in this state, their innovation, their quality, and their leadership.
I really wish our most natural partners wanted to stand proudly alongside us instead of attempting to quash us at every turn.
Today, I poured samples of beer at the North Carolina State Fair. This year is the first time that samples were being poured there, so it was a novel experience for everybody involved. The staff, the brewers, the patrons, etc.
Because I didn’t have much to eat today I found myself getting irritated by little things, like the fact that I had no idea how to get into where I was pouring beer. Like the fact that I was ridiculous and didn’t ask my distributor to bring beer over for me. Like the fact that the greeters in the complex we were in kept saying, “Yeah! The wine is this way!” but neglected to say anything about beer. It was fine. The whole thing turned out to be a great success, grumpiness notwithstanding.
It was actually an incredibly refreshing day. There’s nothing like having a 50-year old, grey-haired, Southern boy walk up to you wearing a John Deere t-shirt, dirty jeans, and a yellowing farm equipment hat, staring at the bottles you’re serving for a bit and then saying, “Whaddya got that’s dark?” to remind you why you’re in this business. Sometimes you get so mired in sales figures and brewery efficiency and you get so involved in the business around you that you forget that a lot of what this is about is giving people good beer that makes them happy.
But tonight I had a bit of an epiphany – at the very least an idea. I think I still need to think about it (and write about it), and I probably won’t even define it perfectly here today, but it’s a start. Here’s what happened:
A lady came up to my table. She was probably mid-50s to mid-60s, short cut, curly, dyed red hair with grey roots. She was wearing a zipper sweatshirt over a blouse and some mom jeans. She was staring down at the bottles that I had but not touching them, clearly not making eye contact with me.
I asked her, “Would you like a sample?” She nodded, so I continued, “Do you want just one or do you want to try all three?”
“Just one,” she said.
“Well, then, what kind of beer do you like?”
Pause. She looks up at me and says, “I like ales and.. uhh.. lagers. Ales and lagers.”
Normally, this is the kind of thing that I internally roll my eyes at. It’s the kind of thing you laugh about with other brewers at beer festivals. You want to snarkily respond to them, “Oh, you like BEER? GOT IT.” You know what they mean. I drink that fizzy, yellow stuff – those are lagers – and sometimes I drink stuff that isn’t fizzy and yellow. Those are ales.” Probably. Maybe.
So, I talked to her a little bit about flavor. Caramel and toffee, chocolate and smoke, oranges and pineapples. I kinda wanted to tell her, hey – it’s okay. I know you’re intimidated by this stuff, but “I don’t know” is a fine answer. Let me help you. And while I was talking to her it occurred to me in such a moment of clarity that it actually stopped me mid-sentence, and I paused in the middle of a tasting before I went on.
Of course she doesn’t know what she likes. Up until now, the people who were making the beer that she was drinking didn’t care what she likes, they care what she buys.
Now, look, I care that she buys. After all, I need to make money. I have employees to pay and beer to make, but follow me for a little while:
This, to me, might be the new definition of “craft”: People who care about YOUR beer.
Today, I was pouring an English Mild Ale (caramel/toffee), a Saison (pineapple/oranges), and a Smoked Rye Stout (chocolate/campfire). If she would have said to me, “I really love IPAs” I would have said, “Hey, sorry. I have nothing for you, but the three other breweries here all have great IPAs. They’re about 4 booths away from me. If you want to try something else, I’ve got your lineup.” because I am so much more interested in that lady having a good experience than I am in getting her $7.
Mass market beer doesn’t give a shit about what you like in a beer. They’re not even trying to sell you that anymore. They’re trying to sell you sex appeal, cool friends, and chug-friendly packaging. Like it? Of course you like it. You’re getting drunk, aren’t you? Ugh.
Craft: We care what you drink.
It’s why beer festivals are so damn frustrating. They’re full of jackasses that come up to your booth and order, “Whatever.” No, man. Not whatever. I spend a lot of time and effort making these beers taste great. I want YOU to LIKE them. Bud Light is whatever. PBR is whatever. If you want to get whatever, just spend your $7 on a plastic bottle of Popov Vodka and tuck in for the night. These beers are ideas. They’re concepts. They’re little glasses of art. I want them to speak to you in the same way they speak to me. You might not even like it, and I’m okay with that, but I want you to just try because I care about what you like.
“Whatever” means fun is drunk. In craft beer, fun is drinking.
So, I care. And I think that’s what sets us – collectively – apart. At Mystery the other night, we had a conversation about what the mission of our company really is. Why are we here? It’s difficult trying to convey the sense of, “We’re here because we feel there’s an underserved market of people who want seasonal-only beer.” or some sort of line like that. It feels too corporate and stodgy, but it’s important to give the company the right direction as you grow. We’ll have something like that (but better) once we finish the process, but the following underpinning idea is still there.
We care about what you like. We want to make great beer and we want you to like it and enjoy it because it’s delicious and that makes everyone happy. That’s what makes us craft.
Because I feel like I need to finish my story, she tried all three. Stout was the hit. She liked the Mild, the Saison was okay (“Too much like Blue Moon.” – which I DID internally cringe at, because it’s not ANYTHING like Blue Moon and also Blue Moon. Eh.), but the Stout!
“I ain’t never had a beer like that. It tastes like chocolate!”
What I wanted to capture in a glass – I told her – were those cold fall evenings, when you’re walking outside and there’s smoke coming out of someone’s chimney, and the smell of damp leaves is in the air. That quintessential fall evening.
“Well, you sure got it.” she said. And she handed me her $7 and left with a bottle.
This past week, I was invited to take part in an event called Free the Brews hosted by Generation Opportunity.
Generation Opportunity is a nationwide non-profit funded by the Koch Brothers. They claim to be non-partisan, but they share funding mechanisms with a number of conservative groups and their messages are certainly libertarian/tea party heavy. As it appears to me, they are a group aimed at getting Millennials to vote conservative in the name of pro-business, or anti-fun, or something. Millennials are already known to skew more liberal than previous generations, so I guess this is a run at convincing a certain amount of them that they’re conservative, really. GenOpp is co-opting the craft beer industry largely under the banner of “down with the three-tier system”, or to put it succinctly, “Free the Brews.”
If you know me, you know I am not what you would call “conservative” unless we’re talking conservation of mass.
So, then, you might ask, what the hell was I doing at this event?
Well, a little history:
Back in May, Generation Opportunity wrote an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer titled “Free North Carolina’s brews from archaic regulations”, written by the head of the group in North Carolina, Alex Johnson. It highlights some issues that are, indeed, issues in North Carolina, but also puts focus on things that really have no bearing, and some that are plain wrong. The primary message is “regulation is bad.”
The NCBWWA responded with a piece titled “There’s a reason N.C. is such a great beer state” in which they make the claim that beer here is great because regulation is AWESOME and also the distributors made it great.
The real truth, of course, is that what makes North Carolina a great beer state is the beer and that without the beer from the breweries we’d all be getting shitfaced on Muscadine wine right now.
Anyway, as President of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, I wrote an op-ed response… which never got published. Here’s a PDF if you’re curious what I had to say; it’s not really the point today.
When GenOpp announced the Free the Brews events, they invited the Guild to take part and the Guild was – understandably, I think – nervous. While GenOpp is championing some of the causes that the Guild believes in, they have reckless rhetoric. It’s the kind of rhetoric that creates political opponents. The Executive Director and I talked about it, and we felt that we didn’t want a narrative about beer to exist in North Carolina without our direct participation. We also knew that this event was happening whether we were there or not. So we agreed to take part. It was a calculated risk.
In the week leading up to the event, I was contacted by a lot of friends asking me something along the lines of “What the hell are you doing?” I had a lot of press contact me and ask me if I was a member of GenOpp (I’m not), or how did the Guild come to co-sponsor this event (we didn’t).
On the day of the event, a previous set of Free the Brews events were brought to my attention up in Detroit. They were followed up by an Op-Ed piece by GenOpp: Detroit, Michigan’s Newest Craft Beer City.
Here’s a snippet:
The most burdensome law is the three-tier system which requires that brewers, distributors, and retailers exist as separate entities. Brewers who produce over a certain number of barrels of beer cannot sell their products directly to consumers. Instead, they must sell to a distributor who then sells to the retailer. Not only does this steer profit toward the middle-man, it also makes expansion and experimentation difficult.
The culture of craft beer in Michigan and across the country is one of camaraderie, and brewers are always trying to push the envelope with new and exciting brews. Unfortunately, regulations make it hard for brewers to drive change. When Reith decided it was time to open Atwater and bring his passion for beer to the young people of Detroit – all of whom are over 21, of course – he faced a few setbacks.
“I had to go through every level of government just to get a permit,” he lamented at the event. Just waiting for the permit to go through federal, state, and local officials took almost twelve months. If regulations were streamlined to make the permit process simpler and speedier, more craft breweries would be able to open, spurring an increase in local competition and more creative products for consumers to choose from.
Less government means more opportunity, more craft beer, and more freedom.
And here’s the response, written by Mark Reith (who was quoted out of context above) and his distributor, Imperial Beverage: Michigan, craft beers, and growth
A snippet from that article:
Gardner took a remark about permits out of context and craftily implied that it was an attack on Michigan’s entire alcohol system. In fact, during the event Gardner attended, Atwater never addressed Michigan’s alcohol regulations. Just cumbersome permits.
What must be stated unequivocally: Michigan’s system works for the small brewery, not against it.
So, I was nervous going into the event on Thursday. I did my best to tell this story: We have it good in North Carolina. Our laws are pretty damn friendly. There’s a reason that breweries are moving here from across the country and opening up at the fastest rate in the country. It’s not because we’re all suffering here. Are there laws that need to be updated? Sure. The bulk of the law was written in 1938 and updated in 1983. The craft industry barely existed the last time the laws were revised. We’re in a different place now, and the laws will change to reflect that, but de-regulation is not the answer.
We’ll see if I am misquoted in my very own op-ed this week. If so, my distributor and I will probably have a blast crafting a rebuttal. The literature (seen to the right here) is definitely along the same lines as the Michigan event.
But that’s also not the point (he said, 1000 words in):
The point is this: Craft beer is currently in this really strange space in politics in which we are neither the darlings of the right or the darlings of the left. We enjoy support from both sides of the aisle, and it enables us to make a lot of progress when it comes to updating old laws to fit a new industry. The last thing we need is to be co-opted by A Cause. As soon as we are seen as a Republican issue or a Democratic issue things are going to get really sticky.
Look, changing laws takes a long damn time. It’s a complicated system, and not just because of the network of relationships and partisanship, or that some laws are only considered during certain sessions in non-election years, but also because changing a law in one place has far-reaching effects. Simple word changes in a law can have effects that go far beyond the intent of the author. Tax changes can change the entire course of state budgets. It’s natural that the pace of industry will outstrip that of policy. That’s okay. Policy changes to fit us, eventually, so long as we work reasonably and responsibly toward an established goal.
I’m happy that there are other groups out there talking policy. I’m glad that there’s apparently a nationwide discussion about alcoholic beverages that isn’t about restricting them further. On the other hand, I’m terrified that it’s happening outside of the brewing industry. Even brewers don’t necessarily agree about what is best for breweries. The possibility of solutions being proposed by people who don’t even understand the problems – just because they want to further a broad political agenda of “more young voters” – could hamper our industry in a real way. Grassroots support is great. Grassroots policy is tricky.
So, my message for Millennials and GenOpp and everyone is this. If you really want to help craft beer and breweries? Go to your local brewery and buy a pint. I promise that they will pursue their own interests just fine. In fact, one of the reasons that there’s a North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild is precisely that: to help brewers pursue their own interests. The Guild has a robust legislative agenda. We’re working toward getting a lot of laws updated. It’s the ones that brewers are concerned about, and I promise all of them are working toward getting beer into your hands because that’s how we continue to pay our mortgages. We know the people involved, we know how these laws will effect brewers. We’re doing a lot less guess work than an outside group would.
If YOU want to get involved and follow a call to action, join the NC Craft Brewer’s Guild and volunteer, Support Your Local Brewery through the Brewer’s Association, but please, let’s leave partisan politics and reckless rhetoric out of it.
Today, I ran across an article in a local mag. The lede reads, Snubbed: Why Raleigh isn’t a top 10 emerging beer town.
The article is a response, of sorts, to a listicle in the Seattle Post-Intelligence: America’s Top Ten Emerging Beer Towns.
The list in the SPI doesn’t bother me much. I don’t see anything in it that’s necessarily out of place, and besides which lists are lazy journalism. Lists are what happens when somebody has to get an article out but doesn’t want to take the time to actually write an article. It’s why BuzzFeed exists. It’s not based off of research or any sort of really quantifiable criteria, it’s based off of personal experience, and it’s largely opinion regardless of the fact that this dude thinks he’s got some sort of repeatable experiment. It’s fine. You could also title this article, “10 Emerging Beer Cultures That I Have Recently Visited and/or Read About”. “Top Ten” is click bait. You’ll also note that it leaves off Washington DC and Richmond, VA, both of which have fantastic emerging beer cultures.
No, what bothers me is the thesis of the TBJ article which is bold and clear in the last paragraph:
Perhaps Raleigh isn’t making recent beer lists – not because there isn’t a plethora of breweries to choose from – because these breweries aren’t doing anything to stand out.
Let me posit another hypothesis: Maybe Raleigh isn’t making recent beer lists because of lack of media support in our local markets. I mean, how else is some guy from Seattle supposed to know that we have a great beer culture? Right now, he reads your article and his response is, “Nailed it.” Nothing to see here, move along.
Now, look, I realize that negative and controversial headlines move papers, but what happened here is that an article got published in a market across country. That didn’t mention North Carolina at all and the TBJ wrote a followup that specifically calls out our local market in a negative way. Thanks for the support guys! Can’t wait to invite you to our next party!
Raleigh – no, I’m going to talk about the entire Triangle, because it takes up the same geographical space as some of the other emerging beer towns in the U.S., and actually includes all 32 of the breweries that are referenced in the TBJ – is one of the fastest growing beer areas in the country. Alongside those 32 breweries we also have another 10 breweries in planning (30% increase!) that I know about and probably more that I don’t know about.
In those 32 breweries, in the last year alone, we have a World Beer Cup Gold Medal (White Street, for their Kolsch), a World Beer Cup Silver Medal (Lynwood Brewing Concern, for their Black IPA), and a GABF Bronze Medal (Carolina Brewery for their Oatmeal Porter). We have 10 medals from the U.S. Open Beer Championship (LoneRider, Silver, Porter; Lynwood Brewing Concern, Bronze, Dry Irish Stout; White Street, Bronze, Foreign Extra Stout; LoneRider, Bronze, Barleywine; White Street, Bronze, Black IPA; LoneRider, Bronze, Black IPA; Fullsteam, Gold, Cream Ale; Fullsteam, Silver, Vegetable Beer; LoneRider, Bronze, Chocolate Beer; Mystery, Bronze, Wood and Barrel Aged Beer).
So, you know, whatever. Nothing special. Except for the worldwide recognition of excellent beer across a vast range of styles. Yawn.
Fact is this: The Triangle is a great place to have a beer. Is there a lot of “boring” beer out there? Sure. There’s a lot of Pale Ale, IPA, Hefeweissen, Porter, Stout, Kolsch, and whatnot out there, and the slice of the market that is Double Sour Imperial Cucumber and Chive Stouts is fairly small. You know why? Because that’s true everywhere. This country’s beer culture is built on those every day beers. The reason they’re everywhere is not that they’re boring, it’s that they’re good. You think they’re the same everywhere you go? Line up 30 IPAs from Raleigh/Durham’s breweries and get ready for a rollercoaster. They’re all vastly different and all amazing in their own way. We wouldn’t have a beer culture in this country if it weren’t for those every day beers being the inspiration for beers that would become every day beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Anchor Steam, etc.
I can make a long list of classic American beers that sound like they don’t “stand out” but that the backbone of this country’s beer industry are built on.
But here’s the other thing about this article. The original criteria of the listicle as reported by the TBJ is this (emphasis mine):
To get on this list, “you need one or more great, veteran brewers in that culture; people others can learn from and emulate. And, most of all, you need a population that’s avid, open-minded, culturally aware, adaptable, adventurous and ready to embrace the Journey along with that new brewery,” the blogger writes.
So, I ultimately read this TBJ article as a slight against our beer drinking population. Raleigh/Durham drinkers, are you really going to take this? I read here that you’re not open-minded, culturally aware, adaptable, adventurous, or ready to embrace a new brewery. To me, the way the TBJ article reads, regardless of the quality of the beer – which is clearly there – we’re not an emerging beer culture because of the quality of the drinker. The crowd at my pub suggests that this isn’t true, but I’m not out drinking with you.
Here’s my call to action: Prove that shit wrong. I know you’re better than that. I see people coming out to our “Sour Sundays”, I see complex and interesting beer styles being gobbled up, I see local support for local breweries every day. And while maybe the author of this article didn’t do the best job doing local research before publishing a nastygram, maybe she shouldn’t have had to do research to know how much local drinkers dig the local beer scene.
So, go forth, drink local, support local, and let’s make sure that articles like this never darken our local media again.
Dear Ms. Kurry, I would like to personally invite you on a tour of the Triangle’s breweries to show you that they are anything but unspectacular. We’ll start here at Mystery and I will personally drive you around all day to make sure we hit as many phenomenal spots as possible. I’m afraid that all 32 breweries may not be possible in one day, since that amounts to 4 per hour in an 8-hour period (to say nothing of drunkenness), but I’ll get you to at least 10 that will blow your socks off. Drop me an e-mail, we’ll make it happen.
Since Mystery Brewing Company‘s appearance on Crowd Rules in May and the introduction of our brand idea on a national scale, I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion online (and in my inbox) about our “no flagship brand” model with varying degrees of agreement or disagreement. I thought it might be a fine time to talk about what seasonal-only brewing means to us, how we do it, why we do it, and why I think that it’s the future of craft beer.
It’s easy: people love seasonal beers.
This idea didn’t just come fully formed into my head. Back when I attended my first Craft Brewer’s Conference, one slide during Paul Gatza’s State of the Industry presentation kept sticking in my head. I might get into a bit of trouble by pulling this slide out of an industry-only presentation, but here it is from 2013. It’s looked pretty much the same way for the past 4 or 5 years:
And, yes, IPA is coming up strong because IPA, but you’ll notice that the other big climber is “Variety.” These trends look the same year after year and they read to me like this:
People are no longer brand drinkers. They’re portfolio drinkers.
It’s always amusing to me that an industry that spends so much time trying to define itself as “not industrial lager” bases its primary business model on the industrial lager model, which is the flagship model: Make one beer, make it well, make it as cheaply as possible, use other brands to keep competitors off the shelf.
There’s two obvious reasons why this model has worked so well and why it’s been adopted by the craft industry.
But this isn’t your daddy’s beer industry any more and drinkers have moved on from the core brand model. A quick look at Rate Beer, or Beer Advocate, or Untappd – or even the fact that those sites exist – will show you. Very few craft fans buy one brand and drink that one brand. Drinking variety is a badge of honor, sometimes even literally.
A few years back, when I was just getting into the beer industry, I saw the results of a survey that showed that when people had a beer that they identified as their favorite – a brand that they were loyal to – they bought that beer, on average, once per month. The same survey showed that they consumed beer several times per week, and often 2 – 3 beers at a time. Some loyalty, huh?
(I really wish I could find that survey and link to it and/or see the results of those questions today.)
The young members of the drinking market – the kids just turning 21 years old – have something that their predecessors never had: vast variety. Any young drinker that walks into a beer store today is faced with not 10, not even 100, but thousands of varieties of beer. I can get 55 different pale ales at the store near my house. And that brings me to two different questions:
1) How could anybody choose just one of those without trying a ton of them?
2) With that much competition already in the market, why on earth should I make a pale ale?
If you’re a craft drinker, ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you weren’t interested in trying something new from a brewery you like? When was the last time you didn’t want to try something from a new brewery? When was the last time you bought the same beer more than a couple of times in a row?
See? It’s happening to you, too. Variety is king.
Based on that information, I decided to pursue the idea of seasonal-only brewing. There were a couple of different facets to the decision. One of them was to capitalize on the fact that people enjoy variety and enjoy seasonal beers. It’s what people buy the most, and so it seemed natural that they would also buy our seasonal beers. The other was to differentiate our brands, and not just make another golden, pale, amber, porter, stout, IPA lineup, but to actually fit into the niches that were open in an already-crowded beer market.
One of the main misconceptions about our model is that we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and have no idea what’s coming next. In reality, we have a set schedule that we brew by that is based on both style and season. It works like this:
We have four style categories that we brew in: Session, Hop Forward, Saison, and Stout.
Each season we make something seasonally appropriate within that category, and we repeat that beer each year. So, just like every other seasonal brand in the country, each beer comes out once/year, is consistent with how it tasted last year, and will be back again next year when it is again seasonally appropriate.
You can click into the graphic, but I’ll break down the styles for you here in text.
Hop Forward Line
On top of that, we also do more limited seasonals, one-offs, experimental, and barrel-aged brews. Since it seems weird to call a beer a seasonal at a seasonal-only brewery, we release them in a line we call our Novella Series. Some of them are truly one-and-done. Some of them we’ll make again. Some of them are candidates for future categories as we expand. Basically, these are where we’re trying our new recipes and styles. Now that we have an operating taproom, many of these go on tap there and there only, but we still like to be able to get special one-offs into the market in keg format.
There are, no doubt, many challenges to this model. I anticipated some of those challenges, and some of them caught me by surprise.
I, like most crazy founders of things that don’t really exist, thought that the brilliance of my idea would be self-evident and that people would immediately understand what the hell I was talking about. In reality, we opened the brewery to confusion about our model and it’s still one of the most significant challenges we face (which is at least one of the reasons I’m writing this article).
As it turns out, the most common question you’re asked as a new brewery is, “What’s your flagship?” When you have an answer that’s a paragraph and not a sentence, people aren’t excited to listen and that’s because – as I was surprised to find out – most of the people who are buying beer at bars and restaurants don’t really care about beer.
I will almost definitely catch some sort of flak for that, but it’s true and, what’s more, it will always be true. You can almost definitely say the same thing about wine, liquor, chocolate, hot dogs, or any other specialty product. Because the people who are most likely making these decisions are making a myriad of different decisions and purchases, and they’re just not excited by the nuances of the brewing industry, nor should they be. They want to make an easy decision about one small facet of their operation and then get along to the next crisis in their day. Plain and simple, it’s not their job to care about the difference between your business model and the next guy’s. In many cases, beer is a set-and-forget kind of purchase. They will buy one brand until sales start to dip and then they will buy a different brand. If you go into a bar or restaurant with a brand that will go away on its own (or will appear to), then it looks to them like you’re just giving them more work.
We’ve honed our elevator speech, we’ve made charts and graphics and flyers, and we’re continually working on more ways of getting information out to bars and restaurants on a regular basis. Still, our largest challenge is defining our business to the customer in a way that they easily understand. We have a hard time convincing bars that they could just, say, always keep our stout on tap and that it creates variety in their lineup for them without any further work on their part.
The same goes for our relationship with our distributor. We’ve had a great time with our distributor, but we’ve found out the hard way that we were not providing enough information to their reps in order to best sell our beer. Sales reps fall in the same place as bar managers and beer buyers. We are just one brand in their book. If they don’t have a good understanding of what that beer is, what it tastes like, or why it changes, it’s a lot easier to sell something else. We’ve had to come back into the brewery and make changes in how we are handling information and what we’re expecting from sales. It was our assumption that beer reps working for our distributor would naturally be interested in learning more about the product and representing it correctly, but it’s a naive view of a crowded market. We don’t just make another pale ale, and if our beer is difficult for a rep to sell, they won’t sell it. After all, it’s just one small facet of their job.
Seasonal-only also contradicts how distributors are built to sell product. There is an onus in distribution to push the flagship brand of a brewery in order to qualify a retail establishment for inclusion on seasonal releases. To put it more plainly: If you, as a retailer, order a bunch of Crappy Golden Ale from Brewery X then you are virtually (but not legally) guaranteed that when Super Popular Imperial Stout comes out from Brewer X in the fall, you’ll get some. But if you don’t buy Crappy, you can kiss Super Popular goodbye. When all of your brands are seasonal, it’s hard to play that game.
Consistency is the challenge that I correctly anticipated. My feeling was that in order to get people to trust an ever-changing beer lineup, you have to make sure that the beer that’s going out is consistent within the brand and that it’s always great. Simply put: You cannot have your entire lineup change four times per year if half the beer you put out is sub-par. What’s more, the beer has to be consistent year-to-year, so that the flavor that customers loved last year is back again for their enjoyment.
We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that we have an excellent lab and good science. We manage 95% of our own yeast propagation, we test every batch through the system for any sort of contamination, and we’re in the midst of starting a tasting panel program to make sure that flavor consistency isn’t just a decision between me and my brewer.
All this said, I do believe that seasonality is the future of craft, and that these challenges – particularly the ones in which people don’t understand our business model – will fade away, precisely because more breweries will eventually buy into the idea.
If I were to polish up my crystal ball and tell you what I think the future of beer looks like, I think it goes a little like this:
Small craft brewers face a number of future challenges from both inside and outside craft.
The big guys are losing market share, and they know where it’s going.
MillerCoors just expanded their “craft” division. Tenth and Blake just got a fancy new building and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of new MillerCoors-funded “craft” brands coming into the market. Anybody who isn’t concerned by that from a small business perspective should take a look at Blue Moon sales numbers and then taste the sours that are coming out of ACGolden’s barrels and think again.
This past year AB-InBev took what should look less like a warning shot and more like first volley in the purchase and proliferation of Goose Island. They can shore up loss of market share by purchasing and assimilating craft breweries and this act shows it. Aggressive corporate behavior and ruthless market dominance is what took them from prohibition to the best selling brand in the world and nobody should believe that they can’t, or won’t, make beer good enough to give any craft brewery a run for its money. Everybody should also remember that Budweiser was, at some point in history, a delicious, crisp, and well-made American pilsner.
These giants and their pocketbooks have considerable influence and sway with the distribution system, which most small brewers still depend on enormously without having robust protection from franchise law. Small brewers, in most cases, still play by the same rules as the large brewers when it comes to distribution because there are no exceptions for business size written into the law in most states. Unfortunately, 99.9% of small brewers don’t have the same financial sway that the makers of industrial lagers do. They are at an incredible disadvantage there.
Inside the craft industry, we’re building our own industry giants. Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and others are so far and away larger than most of the small breweries in States that it’s almost unfair to lump them in the same industry. When we talk about “the Big 3″ we could just as well be talking about those three, since the three of them together make more beer than 98% of the breweries in the U.S. combined.
Regional and super-regional breweries continue to dominate the craft market through many of the same tactics used by the makers of industrial lagers: aggressive expansion and financial influence on local markets through event sponsorship. They get a pass from craft drinkers, though, because of two key reasons: 1) They’re still largely seen as small breweries (because in comparison to AB-InBev, they really are). 2) They make great beer.
However, as those companies continue to grow with a bevy of regional breweries behind them looking to follow in their footsteps, I find myself asking:
Can this country support 50+ super-regional breweries AND 3000+ small breweries? How long can we go before small breweries start going under because they can’t keep up with the big craft brands? How do I differentiate my company to allow it to survive?
I can’t play in the same space as these other breweries. I have neither the financial resources nor the desire to create a nationwide brand. What can I do to stop my company from being swallowed up? What advantage do I possibly have over any of these guys?
The answer is the same for any new small business: agility, creativity, innovation.
I’ll never be able to get my ingredients cheaper, I’ll never be able to make more beer than they can, have lower prices, have flashier advertising, or fancier new packaging. Our advantage – and the advantage of many other new breweries out there – is our small size. We can do things on a 7 bbl scale, that nobody would ever want to do on a 100 bbl system. Maybe because it’s a pain in the butt to manually quarter that many lemons, or maybe because finding a source for 500,000 jasmine flowers is unreasonable. It doesn’t matter why – it is.
The advantage to seasonality in a small brewery is that it takes advantage of what we do best: We make small amounts of really fresh beer, we make a variety of styles, we make them quickly, we make them well, and then they go away. We offer variety and exciting innovation in a marketplace that’s filled with overwhelming sameness. We offer exactly what drinkers are looking for, exactly when they’re looking for it.
Now, if only we can get everybody to understand that. Drinkers love the idea. Bars, restaurants, and distributors are following along, and soon, I hope, breweries will, too.