I’m going to diverge from beer for a moment because everybody on the internet needs to hear – read… whatever – this. This tweet, or Facebook posting. I see it every day:

OMG! Just 10 more followers and we have 1,000! We’re like totally going to give away a SOMETHING AWESOME to our 1,000th follower! Tell your friends! Will you be the lucky one!?!?!?11?3FCtrl-H

No. I won’t. You know why? Because I already follow you. And thank you so much for acknowledging that by giving a SOMETHING AWESOME away to somebody who doesn’t currently follow you. Why should I tell my friends? That doesn’t reward me at all. That rewards them. What I should really do is stop following you and watch your total to see when you get close to 1,000 and then just unfollow you and refollow you again and again until I’m the 1,000th. That’s stupid.

Give a SOMETHING AWESOME away to a random follower at that round number. Give a few. Give everybody who currently follows you a link to a free download that’s only available for a short amount of time – but they know about because they follow you! Go hold some sort public media whatsit at that round number. Send out a thank you message to all of those people wasting their time by following you. Do something to acknowledge the fact that a lot of people have decided that you’re interesting enough to listen to. Rewarding somebody who doesn’t currently pay attention to you is insulting to all of the people that do.

[/rant]

Tags Tags: , , ,
Categories: op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 19 Mar 2012 @ 11 27 PM

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 08 Dec 2011 @ 5:23 PM 

This article is a followup to The Long Winding Path to Startup; call it part of the Mystery Brewing startup series, if you will.

So, here it comes. We’re entering the last month before we finally, finally, should be opening our doors. In the next 2 – 3 weeks, according to every vendor and government agent that I’ve spoken to, we’re going to see all of our equipment arrive AND our federal licensing. From there, I’m hoping that the rest of installation is a snap and that state and local licensing is a breeze. We’d like to have beer in tanks by Christmas, and we’d like to launch the New Year with some Mystery Brewing Company beer.

This is by no means a guarantee, but it’s what I sincerely and deeply hope will happen.

Let me share with you, like in the last article, the phrase that’s been driving me nuts, lately:

“While Mystery has yet to announce an opening date…”

It’s not a terrible phrase. It’s normally surrounded by other nice phrases and words like “highly anticipated” or “exciting.” But, deep inside it makes me feel like there’s somehow the suggestion that we’re being lazy about getting open or that we just don’t know, and it’s far from the case. If it was my choice, I would have been open months ago. Keeping a manufacturing business moving toward market without having the ability to create any sort of income is, to put it succinctly, terrifying. At the same time, as I said before, I’m sensitive to creating too much buzz before we know when things are going to shake out.

So, before I start cranking up the hype machine, let me share the continuing saga. When we left off back in July, I had just received word from the bank that, yes, indeed, they were going to be able to fund the equipment in the brewery. I was pretty excited, as was probably evident from that article, and hopeful that it meant that, given the 18 – 24 weeks that companies need to put equipment together and get it to you, that we’d be up and running in the fall. You can see now, in December, that it hasn’t happened quite like that.

Part of that is because we didn’t actually sign on that bank loan until October.

I’m not one for throwing out figures or naming names, but I will write this as a warning to other startups: I have spent tens of thousands of dollars waiting for banks and loan programs to get paperwork across their collective desks. My aggregate total waiting time for the SBA to turn me down (twice) has been 6 months. Had I known all of this, I would have asked the bank for money to cover the amount of capital that I spent just waiting. Now, it’s lost, unrecoverable, startup cost. It’s money that I can’t spend on equipment or upfit or other useful startup items. It’s money gone to lease, utilities, and enough money for me to pay my mortgage and eat while I was waiting for other people to shuffle papers across their collective desks. I’m not bitter (well, okay, a little), but it should be a warning: Calculate the amount of money you’ll need to not get anything done, because there will be a lot of not getting things done.

In the meantime, though, we tried to keep ourselves busy.

First of all, I say we because in September, when things were getting too busy for me to really handle on my own, I brought a friend on staff to help me. Chris and I met via Twitter, and he and his lovely wife Jen have been great friends ever since. It has been just an incredible boon to have him on my side and helping me out. In fact, I am sure that without him we would be much farther from opening than we are now.

So, together, Chris and I have worked toward getting Mystery going as best as we can without the ability to a) make any sort of large amount of beer (y’know – we can homebrew) and b) make any sort of income. We’ve been getting involved in events where we can, pouring casks when possible (so long as money doesn’t change hands), and trying to be as up front and visible as we can without building up too much insane hype ahead of schedule. We might have failed that last goal by pouring at the World Beer Festival in Durham this fall, where we had a line all day. It was pretty awesome to be there, but not so great to have to tell people that there was no place to find our beer. Soon, people! Soon!

Over the course of the fall I wrote a book and had the fantastic opportunity to visit almost every brewery in the state of North Carolina. Recently, as a companion business to Mystery and with the help of Derrick Smith of Hillsborough’s Wooden Nickel Pub, we opened Nash Street Homebrew, a homebrew shop that seeks to fill a niche in the Western Triangle and far Eastern Triad.

They’re both opportunities that sort of fell into my lap. The book – and I’ve mentioned this in another blog post months ago – came to me, rather than me looking for a place to publish, and while I’m glad I did it, I don’t think I could have chosen a worse time to attempt to write a book. Starting a brewery takes a lot of your time, even when there’s no brewery there. Throw a few dozen road trips and hours and hours and hours and hours of research, writing, and editing on top of that and.. well.. let’s just say that I haven’t slept much in the last few months. I had originally wanted to chronicle my entire trip via the blog, but it became apparent to me very quickly that I had enough writing to do to put the book together. Writing a second book online while I was doing the first was just foolhardy.

You can see a all of the photos that I took, many of which will be in the book (and don’t you dare re-use these without permission) over on Flickr.

The homebrew shop was very much the same way. Without getting into boring specifics, the opportunity and the idea were presented to me together and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. It helps that I have Derrick and Chris to help in the setup and management of the shop. All I basically need to do is manage the business end of things. It’s a great thing to have good partners.

All in all, things are coming together nicely and I’m optimistic for the future. We’ve had some rough times over the past few years, and the opportunity for rough times still exists. If we don’t see TTB licensing this month, things are going to get dodgy really fast, so we’re looking at a couple of ways to make it less dodgy for us as our final pre-opening month comes to a close.

I won’t go all NPR pledge drive on you (I’ve done that here on this post at Mystery), but this week we’ll be launching our Irregulars program, named after the Baker Street Irregulars of Sherlock Holmes fame.* It will be a comprehensive Mystery membership club that includes all kinds of fun swag (a membership kit!), opportunities to get unique Mystery beers, early admission into Mystery events, chances to brew with us at the brewery, and a way to always be a long term part of the brewery. I urge you to check it out, because I think it will be fun (and maybe even a great Christmas gift!), but it’s also a way for people to help Mystery make the final push over the finish line. We can make it at a sputter or we can take air and fly. With people behind us, we can soar into the New Year and bring all of our backers with us.

We’re also planning a New Years Eve soiree at the brewery; a way to see the new brewery first hand before the first beers even get released. What better place to spend New Years Eve than at a brewery? I’ll be there no matter what, party or no. Keep an eye out for more details on that within the next few days, and if you’re in Central North Carolina keep your New Years Eve open and available.

At the end of this all, I just want to take a moment to say thanks. People across the internet, from good friends here in North Carolina (and especially in the NC Craft Beer community), to people I’ve never met before across the country and around the world have been incredibly supportive of me and Mystery over the past year and a half while the entire startup process has been dragging on. This page – the full list of Kickstarters – just makes my jaw drop every time I look at it, and those are just the (awesome, amazing) Kickstarters. It doesn’t even list the dozens and dozens of people who have given of their time, intellect, and advice. I can’t wait to justify your trust and good will with great beer, and I sincerely hope to share a pint (or maybe a half-pint) with each and every one of you.

 

*The Baker Street Irregulars are a band of street urchins employed by Holmes to help him investigate crimes and track criminals. They first appeared in the first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet.

Tags Categories: op-ed Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 08 Dec 2011 @ 11 32 PM

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I just wrote a small piece in my book about what defines a craft brewer, and I was faced at having to put down this ridiculous statistic, here, directly from the Brewers Association.

Microbrewery: A brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels (17,600 hectoliters) of beer per year with 75% or more of its beer sold off site.

Regional Brewery: A brewery with an annual beer production of between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrels.

As a small brewer who will, with any luck, make 500 – 1000 bbls of beer next year, I could not fathom writing down that last number. Just to put this in perspective, I downloaded the 2010 craft beer statistics to take a quick look at them. Bear in mind, now, that 60 or so breweries didn’t report data, so I may be off from reality by a few decimal points here or there. The 2010 data lists 1415 breweries with barrelage data, which is about 300 short of our current number, since so many have opened recently.

Of these, 1334 fell under 15,000 barrels. That’s mindboggling. Up from there, only the top 18 make over 100,000 barrels/year, and only the top 4 make over 500,000 barrels per year. If you take the average from the top 10 craft producers in the country (in 2010), the number is 487,528. If you average all 1415, the number is 6,961, and if you leave out the top 18 it drops to 2,919.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, for two reasons. One, I think we need more than two categorizations for breweries, because I fail to see what anybody that’s operating at 1,000 bbls/year has in common with someone who is producing 500,000 bbls/year aside from the actual end product. I don’t think you could find two more different companies, and I wonder if the majority of the breweries (ie – the small ones) are actually having their needs met from a professional organization standpoint.

The BA Board is primarily comprised of people from the largest breweries who don’t know what it’s like to be a small brewer in today’s market, only yesterday’s where they didn’t have to compete with.. well.. themselves. Kim Jordan has no idea what it’s like to have New Belgium expand aggressively into her state, Sam Calagione has no idea what it’s like to have to compete with his innovation. They’ve never had to do so. Their success has changed the market for small breweries in ways that they’ve never dealt with. Can they accurately consider and respond to issues and concerns of breweries significantly smaller than them? Maybe they can. I don’t know.

I would like to see a more tiered breakdown of breweries, and maybe see the BA address them as separate segments from an organizational standpoint:

Artisanal brewery: 0 – 10,000 bbls (1311 breweries in 2010)
Microbrewery: 10,000 – 50,000 bbls (71 breweries in 2010)
Regional brewery: 50,000 bbls – 100,000 bbls (15 breweries in 2010)
Super-regional brewery: 100,000 bbls – 1,000,000 bbls (17 breweries in 2010)
Premium craft brewery: 1,000,000 bbls – 6,000,000 bbls (1 brewery in 2010)

I’d also just like to pose the question: Would a brewery that makes 6,000,000 bbls/year really have the same interests as the 1300+ that make fewer than 10,000 bbls year? The size difference there is just staggering. In no way is that still a small business in any way shape or form. I’m not advocating culling the BA membership or anything, but given the large numbers of very small breweries, wouldn’t it make sense to treat each of these tiers differently from an organizational level, especially since the small breweries are less likely to have the resources to advocate for anything other than making their own sales goals to stay open?

Maybe the BA could feature different sized small brewer committees to deal with issues that come up within each successive tier. They’re going to be different, from supplier needs to distribution needs – what is relevant to a small brewery will be laughable to a large one and vice versa. Each tier could have advisory members from larger tiers to offer advice on problems that arise for these small guys that they’ve already conquered, or to act as a liaison to the larger tiers if there are intra-industry issues that pop up where small brewers are having a hard time getting their voice heard.

Just food for thought.

 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.

 11 Oct 2011 @ 4:16 PM 

One of the most-hit columns I’ve ever written on Top Fermented was a “Beer Advocate vs. Rate Beer” column. It raises ire. Some people like the fact that I attempted to (poorly) apply statistics to compare the ratings on each site. Other people have bitched and moaned about how it’s a steaming pile of turd, which I won’t necessarily argue with – it has flaws. I’m pretty sure I even say that in the article itself.

Anyway, I see all of these links point here and I read them all and contemplate them and never really say anything because.. hey.. it’s like a two and a half year old column at this point, and it’s kind of meaningless now. Ratings systems are continually updated and people continue to use the site in new and different ways. However, the rating sites still over-appreciate dark, high alcohol, and hard-to-find ales and well-made low alcohol lagers consistently under-perform.

I’ve thought about it a lot and I am now of the opinion that wholesale beer rating is really to a point that it is no longer useful and, in fact, might even be detrimental to the market as a whole – and I don’t just mean Beer Advocate or Rate Beer, but beer review blogs, etc., and anon. The noise-to-signal ratio is just out of whack and the results are being given gravity that they don’t deserve.

Before the flames and trolls show up, let me state my case:

People rate beer by measures that are too subjective

Plain and simple. By and large, people rate beer based on whether or not they liked it, not whether or not it’s a good beer. Believe it or not those are two different things. I can’t stand Bud Light, but I won’t tell you that it’s a poorly made beer. It’s excellently made beer if you want a lite (yeah, I spelled it) lager. But it gets a 0 on Rate Beer (a 1 within the style) and a D- at Beer Advocate even though it is essentially the definition of the “light lager” style. Why? Because it lacks technical brewing skill and is rife with off-flavors? No. Because the bulk of the people who are rating it, like me, hate it. Rather than disconnecting themselves subjectively to actually answer whether or not it’s technically well-made and matches the style, they rate their own taste in graduated values of suck.

I do think that there is value in being able to have a list of ratings of beers that you have enjoyed for your own reference. It’s one of the reasons that I like Untappd – because it gives me a list of my own ratings for me to reference later. I don’t always remember a beer three months later. Have I tried this? Did I like it? 5 stars says, “Yes!” But just because I like it doesn’t mean that somebody else will. Taste is subjective. I like a really wide range of beers, but give me something with a load of Nugget hops and I will always, always hate it. 1 star-only and man did that suck. But! That doesn’t mean you won’t like it, so why should my personal rating mean anything to you?

If it’s a useless measure, we shouldn’t be using it to judge beers with.

There’s no way to tell that people are tasting good beer

And by good I mean “like the brewer intended”. Not old or oxidized or through infected taplines or in dirty, frosted glassware or drunk by a smoker or someone with an asshole for a mouth. Certainly, some people will note in the comments of their review about how it was served or what it looked like, etc., etc., but one look at the top comment under Bud Light really says it all:

…serving type was shot gunning at the football game.

Indeed, byteme94. I will now take your D+ more seriously because I know you put a lot of thought into it for those 4 seconds while it was passing through your esophagus. Was the fact that you didn’t immediately throw up what saved it from a D- or an F?

If someone is tasting a beer out of a dirty tapline and (and this is important) they don’t know what a dirty tapline tastes like, they think they just have a shitty beer and there’s no way for me, as a reader, to tell if this is in perfect serving conditions or if this is someone drinking beer out of their cat’s old food dishes before they give a beer a score (“drunk from a straight-sided shallow goblet”, indeed). I’m not going to look through 3,000 reviews. I’m going to look at the aggregate score. If the aggregate score is a composite of unreliable measures, then the aggregate score is unreliable.

There’s no way to tell if the people are good at tasting

Let’s take, for instance, Geary’s IPA in which the first review – which gives it a B (which is decent, if you consider C to be average) – mentions the word “buttery” twice. Once in the aroma and once in the flavor. He didn’t really care for the butteriness of the malt. Of course, he mentioned that he wouldn’t really expect bitterness or alcohol in an IPA, either. Now, I happen to know that Geary’s is brewed at Shipyard, and that Shipyard’s house yeast is Ringwood which has a VERY high flocculation rate. It tends to drop out of the solution really early and doesn’t really remove diacetyl (which tastes like butter) from the beer like it should unless you do some awesome tricks to keep that yeast in suspension – which Shipyard is generally pretty good at.

IPA shouldn’t be buttery. Malt does not taste buttery. This is an off-flavor. But the reviewer doesn’t know this (or that an IPA should be bitter, sadly). He just thinks (correctly) that it tastes like butter, and while he doesn’t really like it he also doesn’t know that it’s not supposed to be there at all so he doesn’t judge it as harshly as he could and maybe should. Or to look at it backwards, he is judging it as though the butteriness is supposed to be there, because he doesn’t know that it isn’t.

Is this a good, honest review of this beer? It certainly reflects whether or not the drinker likes it, but does it reflect the quality of the beer? ie – Why should this B count with the same weight as someone’s C who does know that their beer is diacetyl heavy? How do I know if the person who is reviewing the beer knows enough about the beer to give a good review? Just because you drink a lot doesn’t make you an expert. It just makes you drunk.

(I am positive that at this point in the article, at least one thread will start on a forum somewhere to discuss whether or not it matters if a beer is well-made if you like drinking it, anyway. Related: Who cares who makes your beer if you like drinking it? Answer: I do.)

The internet is untrustworthy in general

Sorry kids, but I just don’t have any reason to trust you. Just because a lot of people rate something doesn’t mean that there’s any sort of reasonable quality involved. You know that saying that’s something like, “50,000 people can’t all be wrong”? Well – actually, they can. It happens all the time.

A significant portion of this country believes that science and math are just these things that the educated elite make up to try to perpetuate grant funding because paying yourself off of grants is sooooo awesome. They believe things like vaccines are bad but polio is kinda okay. They believe that man and dinosaurs used to co-exist. Why on earth should I trust you, the internet, to know enough about beer to give me a decent recommendation if you can’t get broad “society has moved on” issues correct?

In Summary

Fact: You can’t measure something with an unreliable tool. If I’m allowed to make my own ruler that just has however many inches I want on it at whatever random intervals, I can use it to build the same thing every time. But as soon as I give you my plans you are up a creek without.. well.. a ruler. Have fun defining that cubit, bucko, because I measured it using MY forearm, not yours.

There’s no good way to cut through the noise of beer reviews to find out which ones are worth paying attention to and which ones aren’t. Since there’s no way to calibrate the tasters to make sure that they’re all tasting with the same objectivity, then there’s no way to say that any given set of ratings is even reasonably reliable and I won’t waste my time with them. Until we have some sort of Cicerone-weighted rating system or something like that, I’m calling shenanigans on beer rating, especially wholesale ratings sites like BA and RB. Their data is no longer worthy of consideration, by my estimation.

Make your own ratings and decide what you like for yourself. It’s far more valuable in the long run.

These ratings are being put forth as guides for consumers

Let me quote something to you from the comments of a blog that I ran across that I’m pretty sure sums up common sentiment. I know that I should quote who it’s from, but I don’t know them personally and I don’t want to get into any sort of pissing contest. This quote is in reference to a post recommending shelf tags from Rate Beer and Beer Advocate in retail establishments, much like you would see shelf tags from, say, Wine Spectator.

I do appreciate that the rankings are from a consortium of dedicated drinkers compared to wine, which historically was dominated by one individual or several publications.

Indeed. You know what I hate? Being able to make informed decisions based on reliable, consistent data. What I prefer is to make random guesses based on completely unreliable anonymous data. I mean – who needs Consumer Reports and a trained panel of experts when I can get a product rating from BoobLvr67?

That is the equivalent of trusting anonymous online ratings for beer (or anything, really, but let’s stick on topic).

What I’d Like To See…

…is some sort of rating system from people who are actually known trained tasters – Cicerones and/or BJCP judges – with ratings ranked in importance based on how skilled they’ve shown themselves to be. That would be better information. There’s still individual taster differences, but at least those tasters have been moderately calibrated. At least there’s a starting point beyond, “I signed up for the website.”

That’s a rating site I’ll trust, and those are shelf tags I want to see in retail establishments. Until we can get there, I’m dispensing with wholesale beer ratings in general.

Tags Tags: , , , ,
Categories: appreciation, blog, industry, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 11 Oct 2011 @ 05 00 PM

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