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Monday, January 23, 2017

What Brewers Notice

8am--let's go judge some beer!
Judging for the Oregon Beer Awards unfolded over two long days this past weekend in an event space above the Widmer Brothers' pub. It is quickly becoming one of the more serious judging events I'm aware of: over 900 beers entered from 114 Oregon breweries, with organizers pushing and cajoling to make sure big and prestigious players contributed.  It's sponsored by Willamette Week, one of our alt-weeklies, but headed by Breakside brewer Ben Edmunds. What I particularly like about the event is the way the organizers have reconsidered beer categories. Beers were judged in just 22 categories--radically condensed when compared with the 96 the GABF use--159 (!) if you include sub-categories.

The other impressive aspect is the judges, the substantial majority of whom are brewers. Although Willamette Week wants to make this a revenue-generating awards event each year, the design of the competition is aimed squarely at brewers. Each beer receives notes from the judges for each flight it appears in (preliminaries, second, and medal rounds). The judging sessions are audio-recorded, and the recordings are made available to participating breweries. Feedback is not an afterthought--it's the central objective.

During judging, four people were grouped together for three flights in the am and pm on both Saturday and Sunday. This streamlined the process but also allowed the judges to develop a bit of rapport. I skipped the Sunday afternoon session so I could see that debacle of a Packer game, so I judged with three teams. Of the eight other members across all three groups (we had one no-show), seven were brewers. This may have been slightly skewed toward brewers, but indicates how heavily represented they were in the judging.

As an object of study, beer is large and contains multitudes. Homebrewers, writers, historians, beer geeks, chefs, regular drinkers--we all view it through a particular lens or filter. When you judge beer, that filter is laid bare--the things we notice reveal the way we experience beer. I love judging with brewers because they spend time with beer in a different way than the rest of us. They make it week after week, year after year, becoming incredibly sensitized to the specific chemical compounds present in their beer. Make a beer a hundred times and you really get to know it.

Because one of my own filters is to notice what other people are doing, I couldn't help but pay attention to the particular way they talked and thought about beer. Collectively, there were three habits of mind that were broadly shared and which seemed revealing. I'm going to pass them along because it's worth remembering that the people who make the beer may not think about it the way you do. Does that matter? Does it change anything? Perhaps, perhaps not, but knowing it may very slightly tint that lens you use to experience beer.

1. Process-focused
The flavor compounds present in beer come from a blend of ingredient and process. Beer drinkers tend to focus mostly on the ingredients: which malts, hops, yeast were used. Brewers, on the other hand, are incredibly sensitive to chemical compounds--acetaldehyde, diacetyl, DMS, isovaleric acid, autolysis, oxidation--that are clues to poor process or quality control.

The example that jumped out at me was oxidation. This is the constant, unconquerable foe of the brewer, one that will eventually destroy everything they do. From a sensory perspective, "oxidized" describes an objectionable quality of staleness that may either just dull the beer or taste like paper or wet cardboard. But to a brewer, it's a continuum; a beer at one month--well within the "fresh" zone of a beer's life--is more stale than a week-old beer. It's not stale, but it's observably less fresh. Because brewers are always in a battle to put their beer in front of consumers before that objectionable threshold arrives, they are highly attuned to this evolution.

I judged nine flights and probably close to a hundred beers. In that time there were two beers I would have flagged as dull and stale--not even papery yet, just a bit past their prime. But brewers flagged probably 25 beers for having some quality of oxidation. It happened so often that I started to ask them to describe it so I could locate what they were identifying. Eventually I started to. (It's worth noting that in most cases this was a diagnostic comment, not a critical one--see my second point below).

Brewer-judges plucked these chemical notes out forensically, looking for the fingerprints of brewers who'd made the beer. This of course makes perfect sense; it's what they themselves do in their own breweries. Most of those compounds occur naturally in the brewing process and can be eliminated through certain processes. If you make a beer with acetaldehyde or diacetyl, there's a remedy. Brewers are hawks for these flavors because it's their job to make sure they do or don't appear in the beers they make. Regular drinkers are aware of them at a gross level, but only as they impact the flavor composition of the beer. Brewers perceive them at far lower thresholds.

2. Objective over subjective
One of my favorite moments was when a brewer was describing a beer and said (paraphrasing), "The hops taste like dirt. I don't mean that as a criticism." We all laughed, but knew what he meant. There's an unvarnished way brewers use to discuss beer. If they can identify a chemical compound precisely, they use that over a general description. They would use isoamyl acetate rather than banana if that's the compound they tasted, DMS over corn. The reason is because "corn" is more general and may arise from some other source than DMS. (Corn, for example.) "Banana" probably refers to isoamyl acetate, but not always.

But they're also far less likely to use flowery language or language that carries the valence of judgment. A writer trying to communicate that "dirt" note to his reader my render it as "forest floor," which has a far more positive cast. It's also less precise. When you start breaking flavor down into its smallest parts, you encounter things that, were they the dominant note, would be objectionable. No one wants dirt beer. But when it comprises just 1% of the flavor, something like dirt can be a valuable, positive addition. And in this case, it was dirt--a flat, inorganic note that didn't have the complexity of "forest floor" or even "soil."

In the judging process, people--even brewers--will notice only some of all the available flavors, but collectively begin to construct a fairly complete description of the beer. If they were worried about censoring flavors that might be interpreted negatively or gussying them up so they seemed more palatable, that picture would be incomplete or inaccurate. This, again, is a big part of a brewer's life: they get to know their beers incredibly well, and understanding that there's a dirt note in them is far more valuable than pretending it doesn't exist.They know that it may improve a beer, too.

3. Quiet over loud
This last one is not so much a discovery as a confirmation. Brewers tend to gravitate toward subtle, well-composed beers and away from booming, shouty beers. I will not speculate too much about why this is--and nothing in the judging gave me an obvious answer. Perhaps brewers themselves will offer a reason (or a rejection of the thesis). Nevertheless it was true that in category after category, this slight preference revealed itself. I would guess that it's actually harder for the very aggressive beers in a category, no matter how well made, to win the top award than one that's more subdued and balanced.

This is, of course, precisely the opposite of the way beers are rewarded in the marketplace of mass judgment (BeerAdvocate, Untappd and the like). There, subtle beers have a very hard time breaking through. Within categories, it is the most vivid examples that rates highest. "Quieter" examples, no matter how expertly conceived and executed, just don't score as well. (All brewers know this, and sigh in resignation at the fact.)

This results in an interesting paradox: beer geeks often revere favorite brewers, but those brewers' preferences would likely not be the kinds of beers the geeks love. That paradox is one of the reasons I love this competition. Beer geeks may be surprised and even disappointed by some of the results--they were last year--but the fact that such an impressive group of judges participated should at least make them reconsider these beers.

It was a real pleasure to join these fine brewers in judging, and I look forward to seeing the results. If you're interested in attending the awards ceremony on February 28th, you can buy tickets here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Blog, Pod, and Video

Patrick and I were invited to discuss beer on a local TV station on Monday--in part because of our illustrious Beervana Podcast. Which, serendipitously, I can mention we'll be recording tomorrow in Corvallis. I expect it to be a delight; we'll be speaking with Tom Shellhammer, one of the leading hops researchers in the world. He's going to enlighten us about the way hops affect the flavor and aroma of beer. 

And since I'm doing a bit of housecleaning, let me also mention that this weekend eighty odd brewers and beery people will be judging the second annual Oregon Beer Awards. If the inaugural year was promising, this year's OBA is downright impressive: over 900 entries from 109 breweries in 34 cities. I've written about these awards before, in large part because the categories follow neither the philosophy nor structure of the GABF. They're trying to rethink how we should judge beer, and so far I'm very much in favor of the direction. More on that later.
All right, here's the video. (I have a sense that the one below is not going to be especially high quality, but Blogger's not letting me embed it properly. If you want to see a better version, you can find it here.)


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

How to Do Social Media

This is the life cycle of technology: 1) this is amazing!; 2) man, this really makes my life easier; 3) I can't remember a time before this tech; 4) it's something I have to do; 5) this is nothing but a burden but I can't quit now. Social media was sill somewhere around a 2 before Donald Trump discovered Twitter, and now it's a 4.3. And because my streams are dominated by breweries and cideries, I see a ton of what now largely amount to ads on social media.

But amid that torrent a few companies stand out. My very favorite is Rack and Cloth, a tiny little farm-cidery in Mosier, just east of Hood River. It is a two-person operation, and I'm pretty sure Kristina Nance mans the Instagram account (Silas Bleakley, Kristina's other half, is the principal cider-maker). I wrote about Rack and Cloth here if you want the backstory (it's a good one).

Social media is informal and gives companies the opportunity to do a few things they can't do in other mediums. They can speak with the voice of a human. They can exhibit individual, idiosyncratic personalities. They can connect directly and intimately with followers and build more meaningful connections. They can tell little pieces of their stories in that informal way friends do--which when done well is enormously compelling. Finally, they can communicate important information in an engaging way.

It's not easy, though. As someone who half-asses his own social media about half the time, I know how easy it is to miss the opportunity to really communicate. As a public service announcement, I'd like to direct your attention to Rack and Cloth's work, which is among the best I've seen (click to enlarge them).

The cidery's mascot is a sheep called Pomme Pomme, and it's a real creature. (Dunno if this is her.) This message reminds us that Rack and Cloth is a working farm and connects us to the real, sometimes snowy, activity that happens there.

The little retail outlet in Mosier is a charming building where you can find a pint of house cider and a meal made with farm-grown ingredients. Hanging giant Christmas lights and calling them out with caps is the kind of whimsy you feel when you visit. Everything about this is spot on for the vibe of the place.

Cider-making is mostly not a dynamic process, but there's always a vessel to clean! Kristina's use of the first person creates that intimate connection one loves to see. (And which is really hard to pull off with authenticity.)

This last one was the inspiration for the post; it does everything right--and is delightful writing to boot. Let's go down the list: speaks with the voice of a real human--check. Exhibits a idiosyncratic personality--check (times two, with the #killermike hashtag). Tells a piece of the company's story--check. And communicates important information--check. Telling people "we're closed" is a great opportunity to irritate them. This turns that bad news into something charming and kind.

If there's a lesson here for breweries/cideries who want to maximize their social media's impact, it's finding someone who really knows and loves the company. If you cycle through people who just post basic info, impersonally, like an ad, you're going to reap the meager rewards of such an approach. I suppose it's better than nothing, but look at how much more you can accomplish with the right message and messenger.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Art of Appreciation

Barnett Newman, "The Voice"
Monet is easy. There's a reason his lush, bucolic scenes are reproduced as posters for dorm rooms everywhere. The colors, textures, and composition delight the eye; it doesn't take any specialized understanding to enjoy them. But try something like abstract expressionism, with splatter art and color field paintings. These works aren't easy; they're neither immediately accessible visually, nor are the compositions naturalistic enough to interpret intuitively. Why would an artist create a nearly-white canvas, as Barnett Newman did in "The Voice?" Simply looking at the painting is not enough. That's why other movement has been subjected more often to the critique, “I don’t see the big deal; my kid could do that.”

Monet and Newman illustrate the gulf between enjoyment and appreciation. Enjoyment is a naive act, one possible even in ignorance. Appreciation, on the other hand, requires understanding. Visual art, like language, has the capacity to organize reality in the viewer's mind. This is why it has been a war zone for centuries; each new movement reconfigures reality, becoming a political comment about former movements and their ways of seeing. Abstract expressionism emerged during and after the Second World War and trying to understand these works separate from this context neuters their impact. Even the impressionists were radicals. Their art may be accessible, but the movement deeply unsettled the art world in its nascent days. We can't appreciate art, accessible or not, without understanding the history and context.

This dichotomy between enjoyment and appreciation isn't reserved only for the high arts. It is true with simple and lowly crafts like beer, too, something I was thinking of when bloggers tackled "discomfort beer" for The Session a couple weeks back. The idea was analogous to dealing with abstract expressionism: what happens when you encounter a beer your naive senses can't interpret? When he posed the question, I think Alec Latham was curious to find how people got from confusion to enjoyment, but I think it makes more sense to separate these two things.

Beer is a lowly craft, and appreciation isn't necessary. I have spent many a conversation reassuring people that it's okay to like the beers they like. But for those drinkers who do want to go to the next level, to appreciation, the steps are pretty straightforward. Unlike visual art, which requires some training in aesthetics, appreciating beer is just a process of learning.The antidote to confusion is learning, but the destination is appreciation more than enjoyment.

For the last ten years, I've used writing books as my own little course in beer appreciation. I've found it enormously rewarding personally, though it has made that "what's your favorite beer?" question all the more impossible to answer. It is accessible to anyone who wishes to take the time to do it.
  1. Learn the history. Every beer type, from gueuze (the abstract expressionism of beer) to session IPA, has a story. Nothing emerges from the void complete, without antecedents. There are now many resources online, but beware: the history of beer is rife with error and myth. Books by reliable authors are better: Mosher, Cornell, Pattinson, and Hieronymus are workhorses. I'd put in a plug for The Beer Bible as well--for I cribbed heavily from them (and others). 
  2. Learn how they're made. This point is not entirely separate from the first, but it's important to get into specific technical details. Every beer type is marked by unique approaches to brewing, whether it be the way Americans use hops, the Czechs decoction, the Belgians bottle-conditioning, etc. These are not incidental to the flavors in the beer--they define them. There's a lot of information about beer-making out there, but make sure you find sources that connect the specific process with specific flavors. Again I would recommend Mosher and Hieronymus, with another plug for The Beer Bible.
  3. Drink the classics. Here we depart from the dry academics and begin the fun stuff--field work. Armed with some info about the history of beer and how it's made, start sampling. There's a reason certain beers have been lauded for decades--they're illustrative of the brewers art and great examples of certain beer types. And you really do need to drink the beer from the place the styles originated. Americans make beers they merrily call Belgian or Bavarian, but often don't follow the same technique as the originators. There's nothing wrong with an American kolsch or abbey ale, but in most cases they'll taste different than German and Belgian examples of those beers. Learn the classics first and then you'll see (and taste) where the imitators deviate.
  4. Travel. This one may take some planning and effort, but if you really want to know a beer, nothing beats drinking it in the place it was brewed. Bavarians don't sip one 12-ounce helles from a bottle and call it good. They go to the pub and drink three or four half-liters. This social and gastronomic setting is often the dimension that finally brings the beer into focus. (I chose helles intentionally; I know I never fully understood that style until I spent a week drinking it in Bavaria and Franconia.) 
There are gross and subtle benefits in developing an appreciation for beer. The gross effects are obvious enough. The subtle effect, for me, was unexpected. As I began to learn more about beer types in this deeper way, it actually altered my enjoyment. The beer styles I prized most highly ten years ago are not the ones I do today. Nearly every style of beer has a rich context that emerges from history, national origin, laws, war, agriculture, and brewing tradition. Learning those things, drinking the beer where it was brewed, spending time with the brewers who made it--all this somehow made the beer taste different in my mouth. Learning to appreciate beer is a dynamic process, and it will deliver you through a wormhole into some unexpected place of enjoyment.

It's a slow, incremental journey, one that never seems to end. I continue to encounter details that round out the picture, still make discoveries that alter my sense of appreciation. Sometimes I question whether I'll ever actually understand beer. But then I remember how pleasant the road is to travel, and it all seems fine.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

How Would You Choose the Four Best Breweries in Portland?

This coming weekend, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia will be gathering in Portland for its 2017 Digital Conference. One of the events of the conference is the "best brewery tour" hosted by Willamette Week's Martin Cizmar. When I got the email, I clicked on the link to see which breweries would be on the tour. Turns out there are four of them, and you can find Martin's choices at the link.

Over the past year, I welcomed a dozen or so people from other parts of the country and globe who came in part or entirely to tour Portland breweries. The question of "best" was a discussion with each one of them. There are probably thirty or so breweries that might regularly appear on the average Portlander's best of list, so choosing four is fool's errand. Even when those visitors arrived with more the four slots on their dance card, the process was one of winnowing, always tinged (in my case) by regret. I doubt I ever recommended the same breweries twice.

The question is not even so much as which breweries to put on the list as how you go about your own winnowing. What criteria do you use? How do you make sure the person leaves with a sense of the city's diversity and quality? There is no right answer to the question--nor which breweries are "best." Still, these are questions I bet you all wrestle with and I'm curious--what is your thought process?

(Now back to this excruciating Green Bay/Dallas game, in which my beloved Packers are slowly, inexorably--and inevitably?--giving away the game.)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Lupulin Powder--the Next Big Thing?

A tipster pointed me to a new hop product that debuted (quietly, it seems) last fall: lupulin powder.
Lupulin powder – a purified concentration of the resin compounds and aromatic oils in whole hop flowers – is being test-marketed by Yakima-based YCH Hops (Yakima Chief-Hopunion).... YCH uses a proprietary cryogenic process to separate the powder from the leafy part of the hop cone. That’s also being sold separately as debittered hop leaf, to provide pure aroma along the lines of European noble hops.
Breweries that have tried it seem psyched. They're using the powder to dry hop the beers, and the saturation of aroma is apparently intense. One of the big downsides to dry-hopping (putting hops in the beer during or after fermentation) is loss; the hops function sort of like a sponge, and brewers lose substantial amounts of beer that gets trapped in the left-over hop slurry. This product vastly reduces the lost beer, so even if the sensory quality was the same as whole hops, it would be a big improvement.

Ben Edmunds was apparently onto something when he used his liquid nitrogen-shattering technique for fresh hops; apparently that's how the powder is extracted. I don't have a ton of info on these; except for fragmentary mention by a few breweries online, there doesn't seem to be any info out there. My tipster, who wanted to remain anonymous, did offer two intriguing rumors that I'll pass along in the absence of actual data. These are only rumors. 1) Lupulin powder is getting a ton of attention in New England (this is somewhat bolstered by the reference on Trillium's website). 2) The quality of aromatics, while intense, my be very short-lived. Like two weeks before a big fade kicks in--which is reminiscent of the evanescence of fresh hops if true.

Do ping me if you have info.

Source: Barley Brown's


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Vignette #10: Steve Barrett (Samuel Smith's)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

“It’s a very flocculent yeast and it has a natural tendency to float to the surface of the beer. That can be a mixed blessing during the fermentation, because the yeast is so flocculent it does want to do that at a fairly early stage in fermentation. So the approach taken to encourage it to ferment right to the end is to carry out rousing. The rousing effectively means that we pump from the bottom of the tank up and around this circular [inaudible]--a fishtail/fan arrangement that screws onto the pipe and that throws out a fan of recirculated beer into the top--and that pushes the yeast back down and it keeps the whole thing in a dynamic state.”

“It’s quite unusual to do that during fermentation. You wouldn’t expect to be throwing your yeast through the air. Now this whole thing produces CO2 during fermentation, so for the most part there is protection by natural CO2.  It’s absolutely relevant to the beers we’re producing that whatever’s happening to the yeast in the process is having an impact on the flavors we’re getting. Typically, a very robust, complex, full-flavored beers.”

“It’s tradition. The brewery’s been here since 1758 at least and it’s still owned by the Smith family and they’re really, really heavily keen on maintaining traditions in everything. Traditional hand-crafted beer, and deliveries, the cooper making wooden barrels.  It’s very much about history and tradition, really.”

Steve Barrett retired shortly after I visited and was replaced by Colin Carbert in 2012.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Here Comes "Mass Market Craft"


Bryan Roth, beer's Nate Silver, has applied some data journalism to the idea that rare beers dominate "best of" lists--and beer geeks' hearts. Riffing on that, he wondered about causality: do we just happen to like rare beers, or do we like them because they're rare?
"It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves."
Fair enough--there are scads of scientific studies out there showing how susceptible we are to influence when we think something's special. But what does this phenomenon look like when you flip it around and instead examine those large regional or national brands? Here, I would argue, is the real story. Within the craft segment (however you define it), there are emerging sub-segments. The vast majority of craft beer is still just a few brands--Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Blue Moon and so on.

There are millions of barrels of interest in what beer geeks now deem boring beer. If a brewery wants to appeal to this, ahem, mass market within the craft segment, they can't hope to do it with a brett-aged saison. Indeed, the opposite is happening. As big money flows into the craft segment, it's looking to find stable, large chunks of customers for its products. Buoyed by Heineken money, Lagunitas shipped nearly a million barrels of beer in 2016, 60% of it IPA. Goose Island IPA is actually growing faster than Lagunitas IPA and poised to overtake it. Constellation is pushing tons of Ballast Point Sculpin in all the colors of the fruit bowl. None of these brands is younger than a decade old.

In order to capture that mass market, other breweries are far from "innovating." As one example, everyone is trying to recreate Sculpin's fruit-IPA success. Sierra Nevada has a fruit-infused pale and an IPA that tastes like fruit (Tropical Torpedo). Kona has a passionfruit, orange, and guava IPA. Dogfish Head has Flesh and Blood, a ... fruit IPA. Full Sail's got one with papaya just coming out. New Belgium has Citradelic. And on and on. (It's actually entertaining to visit the website of one of the larger craft breweries and see that they all have one.) Or take Firestone Walker, which scored an unexpected, massive hit with 805, a golden ale. Guess what style we're starting to see the big breweries brew now?

Of course, most of those breweries are also putting out the rare beers Bryan mentions. They have barrel programs or specialty lines, and they make the kinds of beers that make geeks' hearts sing. What this signals is that the market is in the midst of a stratification, and we're seeing breweries attend to both "specialty craft" and "mass market craft" sub-segments. (No doubt drinkers pass back and forth between the categories, as they do between craft and mass market lagers. These are not separate populations of drinkers, but they are separate sub-sectors.)

By chance, I was perusing this page by the consumer research company Mintel and discovered that they were already out in front of me. They distinguish between "true-craft" and "mass-craft." For the moment, they use the dichotomy to honor the Brewers Association's definition of "craft," but that is a dying (or perhaps dead) distinction. There is a real market difference, both in type and price, between the specialty and mass craft segments. And it is only going to widen. Once you introduce the idea of "mass-craft," there's no going back.

So to return to Bryan's thinking. What I'd say is that it's the upper end that's abandoning the aficionado. They're no longer competing to make the most distinctive, interesting beers for the large regional and national markets. They're looking to put out products that capture a large portion of the audience, for however long that beer can keep their attention. Beers like Citradelic and IPApaya were not designed to be workhorse brands that will take breweries into the next decade. They're quick, trendy, and disposable (and of course, occasionally very good). We fall in love with the rare beers because we're not meant to fall in love with these. They're like some of my filler blog posts.* A few clicks/bucks and everybody's happy. You'll know when I put out the good stuff.*

I have a hunch this will hasten the tide of rising cynicism among some beer drinkers, but it's not the breweries' fault; people are going crazy right now for fruit IPAs and golden ales, and so that's what they have to brew. I'm sure your local brewer would rather drink a saison, too, but there's just not enough interest to push one to a national market. Welcome to the era of mass-craft.

*Ha, ha, kidding. Of course none of my blog posts are filler. They're all carefully considered and reported and run through my team of editors.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Just to Clarify

I've gotten a few odd reactions to the announcement that I'll be working on a biography of Kurt and Rob Widmer for CBA last Friday. Just to be perfectly clear: if I do my job properly, you should notice absolutely no difference here at the blog. I anticipate continuing on as I have the last 11 years, providing you all the quality and objectivity you've come to expect*.

That is all.

*Which is to say, idiosyncratic and/or poor.

Winner-Take-All Markets

One of the pleasures of doing a podcast with an economist is that occasionally he surprises you. We have long planned to do an episode on the the value of superstar brewers--those folks who have created some of the indelible beers that sell hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer each year. We used local legend John Harris as our example, who brewed some of the first beers at the McMenamins empire, then the classic line at Deschutes, went on to elevate Full Sail, and finally founded his own brewery Ecliptic. How would we calculate his value?

That's an interesting question on its face, but Patrick introduced me to a fascinating concept through which to look at this question: winner-take-all markets. These are situations in which the money flows disproportionately to the winners. Patrick gave a couple of examples, starting with sports. You have thousands of exceptional athletes playing at the collegiate level, but only several hundred playing in the NBA. The talent difference between an excellent college player and a great is slight, but the rewards are gigantic. In music we see a similar phenomenon; artists like Adele earn tens of millions while working bands have to drag their equipment around the countryside to scrape out a living.

In beer, there's a similar phenomenon. Even within craft, the top six percent of breweries make 84% of the beer (The overall beer market is even more top-heavy.)  So the question: is beer a winner-take-all-market? The question of the brewer's value is a subsequent one, and also fascinating. I didn't have a whole lot to do with making this conversation interesting, but interesting it was. To learn the answers, of course, you have to listen to the pod (find on iTunes and Google Play as well). We also do a bit of year-end wrap-up and start-of-the-year forecasting.

Incidentally, we refer to a video clip in the podcast in which John recounts his start as a brewer. It was filmed at the celebration of his 30 years as a brewer last spring, and if you freeze frame the picture during the cheers at the end, you'll see some of the working brewers John inspired. And as a charming bonus, the young woman behind him is his daughter.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The New Project

It has taken months of planning and then legal review, but I'm finally able to discuss my newest big project. It is--well, let's back up. Probably time to do a full overview of my activities and give you an update on my full disclosures.

I'm just beginning year eight of full-time writing, and the project of supporting myself remains a work in progress. Writing itself pays crap, as most people are no doubt aware. There is a tier of professional nonfiction writing that is very lucrative (your Ta Nahisi Coates, Michael Lewises, and Malcolm Gladwells). Somewhere below that tier is the one I'm on--where it's possible to publish books and articles to your heart's content and still not make enough to live on. The entire enterprise of publishing--newspapers, magazines, books, online--has been hemorrhaging money for years, and there's less and less of it to go around.

So we do things like find sponsors for our blogs, as I began doing last year.  Another thing we can do is consulting, which I also started to do, more slowly and with spottier success, last year. The idea I pursued actually came from Sally, in a discussion over beers (naturally). One of my skills is being able to see a narrative arc amid the riot of activities that constitute a brewery. This is something, by and large, that breweries themselves aren't great at, so they don't often do a great job of 1) understanding their own stories, nor 2) communicating it well to their partners (distributors, retailers) or the public.

So I drew up a list of breweries I admired whom I thought could use some help in that capacity and offered to help them tell their stories. Some turned me down (The Commons, pFriem, Breakside, Ninkasi) and some took me up on the offer (Ft. George, Pints, Block 15, Ninkasi--after reconsidering their earlier rejection). To be clear, this wasn't ongoing marketing or brand consultation--I was contracted to deliver a story for the brewery in much the way I would deliver a story for All About Beer.

As a matter of ethics, I think that last distinction is highly relevant. Being employed by or having ongoing relationships with breweries creates a conflict of interest when you're writing about them. Even this level of involvement requires, at a minimum, full disclosure so you can judge for yourself whether I'm in the tank for one of these breweries. These breweries understand that there is no ongoing relationship, and I will continue to cover them independently. (They also understand that I may be doing similar work for their competitors.) As always, you as the reader will render the final judgment. I also know hive mind is not silent with its opinions.

All of which gets us back to the point of this post. The one big project that did emerge from this is one I'm pretty excited about: I'll be writing a book-length biography of Rob and Kurt Widmer for the brewery. They are interested in an accurate, complete history of the founding era while most of the major players are still around to tell it. Kurt has already retired, and Rob will someday, too. If Craft Brewers Alliance survives for decades, as many breweries have, it will be an invaluable resource to have a biography of the founders to guide the company. (I was surprised by how vividly the presence of Arthur Guinness remains at St. James Gate; the way people speak of him, you half expect him to walk through the door. Breweries continue to live their legacy long after the founders are gone.)

I would have written a company-facing hagiography if that's what CBA wanted, but to my great relief, it's not. We're going to get into the mistakes and controversies. I sat for two hours with Rob and Kurt yesterday afternoon and listened in great detail to the failure of Altbier, the founding product, which almost sunk the brewery before it got started. To their credit, CBA recognizes that success stories are built on mistakes and miscalculations as much as they are on good planning and smart decisions. I'm going to tell the whole story.

Throughout the year, I'll be passing along information I dig up that I find fascinating. (For example, this amazing fact: the Widmers dumped the first ten batches of Altbier before dialing it in to their satisfaction--while, of course, hemorrhaging money.) One element of the project is acting as a bit of an archivist. I'll collect cool photos and documents to reproduce in the book, and I hope to pass some of those along as well.

Everything else around here should look about the same, if a bit more Widmer-ized than usual. (I'll put a notice any time I write about the brewery to alert people to my relationship with them.) Because of the Widmer biography, I don't plan on doing any more consulting this year, but if I do, I'll mention it. I'm also going to add a tab at the top of the page with a list of breweries I've done work for so you will have all the facts.

This is going to be a good and fun year for me--and one not tinged with financial stress, as a few recently have been. I hope you find it interesting, as well--