Pernicious Weeds and Business Deals

I guess this is why I kept this domain—to post about once a year. After hearing of another brewery snatched up by ABI, it’s time to dust off the old MacBook and jot down some thoughts.

First, I don’t begrudge a brewery for selling out or making a move to set their investors and founders up for life. You sold your brewery for millions of dollars, good on ya. I’m going to keep teaching at a public high school, freelancing here and there and drinking good beer. You do you.

Second, damn it’s sad to see another interesting and exciting brewery choose cash over independence and, perhaps, integrity. This is the third brewery I profiled for BeerAdvocate Magazine that has sense sold to ABI. First it was Blue Point, then 10 Barrel, now it’s Wicked Weed. I re-read those articles and hoped to find a quote in which they said “we’ll never sell,” just so I could be like “HA! Hypocrites,” but that just wasn’t the case. All three were dedicated to serving their local communities and making quality beer, and I hope they all continue to do so. I chose those breweries (and every brewery I profiled for BeerAdvocate) because there was something unique and promising to the way they approached brewing. I suppose ABI recognized the same promise.

Third, I’m not sure who helped finance this deal, but I know that a beverage industry financial business called First Beverage Group was involved in the 10 Barrel acquisition and I believe Duvel Moortgat’s acquisition of Boulevard (it may have been Firestone-Walker, though). Basically, FBG works as a middleman to get these deals done and make both sides happy (probably an oversimplification. I’d like to be more clear, but can’t. I previously tried reaching out to FBG for another story and was politely declined a comment, so the exact role of FBG is beyond the scope of my understanding of complex business deals).

Whether FBG accommodated this acquisition is moot. If it wasn’t them, it was a similar entity. However, I did have the opportunity to see how groups like FBG operate up close for a brief time in 2015 when I was invited to speak at the company’s Blue Box conference. The company’s CEO, Bill Anderson, liked my book and thought I had interesting things to say on the beer industry, so they invited me out.* It was an eye-opening experience, and I probably didn’t make the best impression.** I spoke on the beauty of remaining small and independent and the fear that conglomeration would swallow the beer industry whole and lead to another reduction in options for the consumer (you can read what I had to say here.)

Mr. Anderson—by all accounts a nice guy and a pleasure to work with—spoke to me beforehand and said, “I’ve got to be honest, I think you’re wrong. The trend is heading the other way.”

I couldn’t disagree. He was right. I just wished that he wasn’t.

I suppose my overall point is this — as long as there are beer drinkers, there will be money in beer. As long as there is money in beer, folks will try to make more of it (beer and money). As long as there are folks trying to make more money, corporate giants like ABI are going to be interested in getting that money for themselves, and groups like FBG are going to be there to help make sure it happens.

Damn, though, I wish that wasn’t the case. In any case, I’ll be at Dodger Stadium tonight and I’ll be drinking one of the few beers available to me there from an independent producer. Three Weavers, I’m coming for ya!

*They spoke with a representative from my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, that told the folks at FBG that my speaking rate was five figures. Apparently they thought that was a reasonable sum to pay a beer writer to speak for 20 minutes. I couldn’t disagree.

**I knew I was in trouble when, I took the stage at 9:30, I opened with the joke, “you can tell this is a business conference and not a writer’s conference. If it were, we’d all still be in bed.” Crickets. Coupled with my nervousness, my naiveté and my general inexperience as a public speaker, it wasn’t exactly the most compelling talk of the conference. It wasn’t a disaster, but let’s just say that the guy who praised the benefits of running wind sprints at 4 a.m. to start each day gave his talk at the end of the conference was much better received.

WCBB Podcast Episode 3 – BrewLAB Boys

This month’s podcast features some of my favorite brewers, Steve Jarmie, Peter Goldammer and Rob Peed from BrewLAB in Carpinteria, California. They’re small-batch brewers in a tiny industrial space off of Carpinteria Avenue, and they’re making some of the most consistently impressive beer despite working on a glorified homebrew system (I wrote about them more here). They’re in the midst of an Indigogo campaign to expand (disclosure: I donated. It’s not usually my style to do that, but I want them to have bottles and growlers), but will still be smaller than the typical craft brewery.

And if you’re thinking: There’s no way a place like that can make money, you might be right. Then again, I’m not sure Rob, Peter and Steve mind too much. Around the 30-minute mark, they talk about being effectively homeless and living in the brewery’s first space as they tried to get started. They’re happy making beer and running their own lives, and I’m constantly impressed. Enjoy, and stay biased.

WCBB Podcast Episode 2: Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson

This month we’ve got Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson from Firestone Walker Barrelworks in Buellton, California. Jim and Jeffers go way back with Firestone Walker, as Jeffers was the brewery’s first brewmaster and Jim was acquired alongside Matt Brynildson when the brewery moved into its Paso Robles location.

Now Jim and Jeffers are making some of the finest wild ales and sour beers in California, including their third batch of what Barrelworks considers its official, unofficial anniversary ale, Feral One. Batch 3 is being liberated this Saturday, February 27 in Buellton along with tastings of other rare and exciting beers that they’ve got up there in their ever-growing barrel room.

Jim and Jeffers are busy prepping for this weekend, but we managed to find some time for a phone interview when all of our schedules were free. I had to record this in my car on a sunny Los Angeles day. Pro tip to all you budding podcasters out there like me, don’t do that.

I was definitely thirsty after this interview. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

East Meets West: Reviewing Dogfish Head’s Fort and Higher Math

DFH Fort and Higher Math

Craft beer is crazy, stupid, fucking beautiful — and it has been ever since Dogfish Head came on the scene in 1995. While famous across the country for IPAs like 60 Minute and 90 Minute, it’s the brewery’s “off-centered” offerings that set it apart and keep the Delaware-based craft beer pioneers relevant in a market dominated by West Coast IPAs. Perhaps you’ve heard it asked, “Wherez the hopz, bro?”

And despite our decidedly West Coast bias here (sorry for the shameless pun-based brand-awareness plug — we’ll be noting that in our next confession), we couldn’t help but wrap our lips around a pair of bottles from DFH when a colleague brought them back from a recent trip to D.C.

Presenting, for our discerning taste buds, Higher Math and Fort. The first is described as an “ale brewed with chocolate and sour cherries,” and tips the scale at a massive 17% ABV. The 20th Anniversary beer from Sam Calagione and crew is meant to evoke memories of his first home-brewed beer, but there’s nothing nostalgic about this forward-thinking ale.

With an abundance of sweet and sour cherry in the aroma and a huge, burnt-brown sugar nose right up front, this feels like a home brewer’s experiment right from the start. A very good, creative, inventive homebrew that feels like the fruition of a late-night, barleywine-induced brewer’s fever dream.

There’s more and more fruit in the initial sips, and enough alcohol heat that you can’t forget you’re drinking a 17% ABV beer (although drink a few of them, and you’ll forget a lot more than that).

If there are flaws, they’re covered up by layer after layer of flavor and alcohol. Is it stylistically accurate? Who knows. This beer defies classification beyond “interesting.” It’s hard to imagine drinking more than one (or in our case, half of a shared bottle), but that’s part of the beauty of this beer and Dogfish Head in general.

This beer would be just as good paired with short ribs (as DFH’s website suggests) or reduced and incorporated in the barbecue sauce itself. Like Kanye West, it’s a distinct, unique and brilliantly creative force — and like Yeezus, it’s probably not for everyone.

That doesn’t appear to be the goal of Fort, which is decidedly simpler and more drinkable.

A Belgian-style ale brewed with a “ridiculous amount of raspberry juice,” Fort is exactly as billed. The big fruit aroma smells like a smoothie, and it tastes like sweet fruit jelly. Each and every sip is a blast of raspberry after raspberry — did we mention this beer tastes and smells like raspberries?

It’s simple, straightforward and tart in comparison to Higher Math. Stacked next to the anniversary ale, it’s dull—but that’s not really its fault. It’s not fair to call it a beer for people who don’t like beer (because, um, it’s a beer, so that doesn’t make any sense), but you don’t have to like beer to like Fort. You do, however, have to like raspberries. Lots, and lots of raspberries.

WCBB Podcast: Episode 1 — Mitch Steele

 

West Coast Beer Bias welcomes Mitch Steele, brewmaster for Stone Brewing Co. and Author of IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. We chat about his past life as a brewer for Anheuser-Busch, the current state of craft beer and the future for Stone.

Where’s the romance in selling out?

Behold the concept of the sell-out.

With that dreaded label come the connotations of a loss of cool, a profits-over-everything business approach and a watered-down mainstream appeal. That’s the same whether we’re talking about music, Mexican food or beer.

The craft beer industry has seen a glut of sell-outs graciously accepting lavish offers from brewing giants (most notably from AB-InBev), and the predictable backlash from beer geeks and keyboard cowboys from every corner of the Internet (OK, mostly BeerAdvocate forums and Twitter).

The arguments seem to devolve into two camps:

  • Big beer is the devil and makes shitty beer — therefore, any brewery that is bought by big beer is now also the devil and also makes shitty beer.
  • Beer is a business — therefore it’s only natural that craft brewers should be able to cash in on their success and make as much money as possible.

Both arguments suck.

Big beer isn’t the devil, at least no more than any other major American corporation. The good thing about mass capitalism is the highly consistent products that go along with it. You may not like the way Bud Light Lime tastes, but that stuff is going to taste like Spring Break (and everything that goes along with that) in a bottle every time. The big boys hire some of the brightest brewing minds in the world, and that expertise isn’t going to make your least-favorite sell-out’s beer taste worse just to fuck with the consumer.

As nice as it would be to point to AB-InBev and scream “Devil,” it’s just not valid. Are they bad? Sure. Are they evil incarnate? Nope.

The problem with the second argument, the one that tends to justify selling out by reminding everyone that beer is a business, is that we never bought into beer as a business in the first place. Craft beer drinkers are romantics. Hell, I wrote a whole book based on the notion that craft brewers did things differently than the rest of the business world (It feels foolish to look back at this now, but when the project began in 2009 it still rang true. And in my own defense, none of the breweries I featured extensively have sold out—unless you count Firestone-Walker’s partnership with Duvel, which I don’t).

Los Angelenos didn’t fall in love with Golden Road because it made the best beer in the country (it’s not even the best beer in Southern California), we loved it because it was a quality brewery that we could call our own. Golden Road put Los Angeles in a can, and we loved them for it, then they sold to AB-InBev and that love went away. It’s still a great place to grab a beer in Burbank, but the charm is gone.

 

So, what’s the problem then?

The problem is subtle, and we are the problem. As consumers, we’re on the verge of making it impossible for smaller breweries to compete in the evolving marketplace that is your local craft beer aisle.

I’ve been a craft beer observer for some time now, and I think I’m fairly qualified to address this topic.

On the other hand, I’m not as qualified as Mitch Steele.

Steele is Stone Brewing Co.’s brewmaster and has been since 2006, but that comes after 14 years at Anheuser-Busch. If anybody in craft beer has some insight into what big beer is up to, it’s Mitch Steele.

Unfortunately, they haven’t kept him in the loop either.

“I’m wondering myself,” Steele said in a recent interview for the first WCBB podcast. “It’s interesting, because when I was there in the 90s, when August Busch III was running the company, the stated goal for Anheuser-Busch was to have 50 percent of the American beer market. We got there, I don’t remember when, but we got there very briefly and since then it’s been declining.”

Steele was around during the days of 100% Share of Mind, when Anheuser-Busch’s goal was to completely dominate the market and mindshare of American beer drinkers. It was the kind of bland ubiquity that helped spawn and fuel the rise of craft beer, but it also hinted at how the brewing giant would approach a loss of market share in the future.

During Steele’s tenure in A-B’s specialty brewing department, they tried to emulate better beer — and failed.

“I think one of the things we learned as a company is we never stealth-brewed anything,” Steele said. “Everything had Anheuser-Busch on the label and we didn’t have (Doing Business As) breweries and that sort of thing. And it didn’t work.

“At that time, craft beer was a much smaller part of the market, but the people who drank it were incredibly passionate about it and they did not want a beer brewed by Anheuser-Busch if they could get it brewed by a smaller company that tastes as good as better. I think we learned as a company that craft beer was going to be something that A-B was not a major player in.”

Craft drinkers are still passionate, but craft beer is essentially mainstream at this point. Where virtually every craft beer drinker (most likely a gross generalization, but let’s roll with it) in the early days was a beer geek and was up on news and trends in the industry, the average modern consumer knows significantly less.

The three most salient questions for the contemporary drinker are: What’s the beer taste like, who makes it, and what’s it cost?

To be fair, those are totally legitimate questions. And if A-B/InBev can make Goose IPA six-packs for a few bucks cheaper than Goose Island could prior to the buyout, then why should we care?

“That scares me to death,” Steele said. “The idea that they can get a craft beer IPA recipe and brew a reasonable facsimile of that in a big brewery and charge $2 less a six-pack—that, to me, is a very real issue.

“I think there’s a couple things going on. Number one, I think craft beer consumers are changing and it’s becoming more mainstream. The beer drinkers may not be at the same level of education about craft beer that they used to be… so when they see the cheaper beer they’re going to buy it and a lot of small brewers cannot compete with that.”

That last bit is the kicker. Small brewers cannot compete with that.

So, back to those first two arguments. They both suck, but they’re both right too. Big beer is a business, and it’s doing what businesses always try to do — make money. And while a small handful of craft breweries have been able to succeed in the marketplace thanks to selling out to big beer, companies like AB/InBev are making it harder for smaller local breweries to compete in terms of price and product availability. That, in turn, can seem evil.

It’s why there’s a sour taste in the mouths of so many beer drinkers, and it’s not because sours are a rising trend.

I’m not suggesting that you start a boycott of any brewery brazen enough to take a payout. Just don’t forget about that romantic side of you that was drawn to craft beer in the first place. Beer’s soul isn’t lost yet.

Beer review: The Surgeon IPA (Institution Ale Company)

Institution Ale Company (Camarillo, CA) — The Surgeon IPA

Institution The Surgeon

The Surgeon operates in a rare corner of the beer world. Triple IPAs such as Pliny the Younger from Russian River Brewing Company and Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA have become craft beer-geek milestones and measuring sticks. Simply getting a taste of either is an important box checked in the beer-drinker’s bucket list.

Perhaps rightfully so, these beers receive ample amounts of hype and fans line up for hours to get a pour. The question becomes: is it worth it?

With The Surgeon available without a line in Camarillo, the short answer is: No.

The Surgeon poured at Institution Ale Company in Camarillo, Calif.
The Surgeon poured at Institution Ale Company in Camarillo, Calif.

The Surgeon is clearly brewed with Pliny the Younger in mind, as it should be. Russian River set the standard for the Triple IPA category, and The Surgeon meets and occasionally exceeds every mark.

Like Pliny the Younger, The Surgeon enters the glass as brilliantly clear golden amber nectar with a thin white head. Small bubbles stream steadily upward, pushing forward a rich hop profile in the process.

Pine, soil, orange, grapefruit and dank herbs take their turns filling your nose before a lingering pine and citrus aroma stick around for the lasting memory—as they should in an American IPA of any strength. There’s a large amount of malt used to balance out an even-more-ridiculous amount of hops used to make this beer, but little to none of the breadiness or caramel notes come through in the aroma.

Not so in the first sip, which presents itself as a remarkably dry and round beer. There is more orange, lemon and grapefruit, but only a touch of bitterness on the palate. The strong honey flavors of the malt meld with the citrus and combine to create a suggestion of mandarins — a welcome surprise in a beer landscape that often seems to embrace grapefruit flavors over everything else in hoppy beers.

There is a strong flourish of alcohol that reminds the drinker that he or she is drinking an 11% triple IPA, but not enough to be off-putting—and not out of line with the style. It’s warming, and it’s inviting.

Drinking, and standing in line for, Pliny the Younger is a beer nerd’s rite of passage. The experience of hunting down your first pour of that special whale will leave more memories than the beer itself. But once you’ve done it, and you’re ready to drink amazing beer without the fuss, then it’s time for The Surgeon.

From left: Sedation, Progress Pale Ale (Citra) and Ratched Rye Porter. Three other strong beers from Institution Ale Company.
From left: Sedation (Hoppy red ale), Progress Pale Ale (Citra) and Ratched Rye Porter. Three other impressive beers from Institution Ale Company.