The Converging Coasts of Craft Beer

If you’re reading this you’re either a craft beer fan, a friend forced to visit the blog under penalty of fatwa or you landed here after misspelling the topic you intended to search on Google (understandable given the fact they cram so many keys on these keyboards).  If you’re here by accident please don’t leave – you’ll probably add more more to the conversation than everyone else (and if you do leave I’ll add you to the fatwa list).  Those of you who are craft beer fans have plenty of other interests too.  I’m also a big college basketball fan.  Big East born (sort of) and bred.  My freshman year at Syracuse was also the inaugural year of the Big East Basketball Conference.  So I’m watching ESPN last Fall and see that the Big East is welcoming a few new schools including San Diego State and Boise State.  Wait…what?

Last time I checked San Diego was in California and Boise was in Idaho and neither of them are east of much of anything.  Despite the geographic anomaly, those schools are moving east.  They’re not the only things moving east.  Over the past year, no less than five craft brewers have announced plans to build or have already begun building breweries far from their western homes.  Most in the craft beer community welcome the expansion.  I’m not so sure I’m on board.  Not yet anyway.

Green Flash (Nature's Version)

Green Flash (Nature’s Version)

That’s a picture of the mythical green flash and I spent many a sunset on various Southern California beaches in San Diego, Malibu and points in between hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive phenomenon.  I don’t know if I ever saw it.  If I did, I’m sure Will Smith walked up soon after and slipped on those sunglasses.  In any event, when I think of Green Flash I think of the green flash and that takes me back to California (yes, the Eagles were right.  I checked out many years ago but I still haven’t left).  So my perspective on the eastern migration of west coast craft brewers is greatly influenced by my years out there. In that respect, my opinions may be very different than most.

As of last count, three California craft brewers are opening new eastern breweries and two Colorado brewers are doing the same.  Specifically:

  • Green Flash (San Diego) to Asheville, NC
  • Sierra Nevada (Chico) to Asheville, NC
  • Lagunitas (Petaluma) to Chicago
  • New Belgium (Ft. Collins) to Asheville, NC
  • Oscar Blues (Lyons) to Asheville, NC

Granted, there are plenty of great reasons for these guys to open major brewing operations in the Southeast.  Asheville is a worthy craft beer destinations these days.  I get it.  The economics just make too much sense.  Green Flash and the rest of the reverse geographic pioneers almost have to have a presence out here if they want to increase market share and production while greatly reducing distribution costs and all the logistical nightmares that come with trying to get fresh craft beer onto shelves 3000+ miles away.  Distribution up and down the eastern seaboard out of NC is certainly more advantageous than doing it from San Diego.

Which Coast IPA

Which Coast IPA?

Craft beer fans (myself included) will have plenty to raise a glass to once the fermenters and bright tanks are up and running in the shadow of the Biltmore Estate:

  • Availability – No more empty shelves in Philly.  When Lagunitas sucks we’ll all get plenty to cheer about.
  • Variety – California (or Colorado) only limited brews may see the light of an Atlantic sunrise.
  • Freshness – There will always be challenges (individual retailers won’t be off the hook) but it stands to reason that it will be much easier to keep fresh brews on the shelves when it’s brewed closer to home.

All great reasons to applaud and look forward to the days when the new breweries are up and running but I’m only clapping with one hand.  For me there will be something missing.  Authenticity.  When I pour a Green Flash West Coast IPA I want it be just that – a legitimate west coast IPA from the the real San Diego.  I’m sure they’re going to do it right.  The brews coming out of NC will probably be indistinguishable from the ones brewed in CA.  That said, it’ll just feel a bit like I’m buying a label – buying a brand.  That’s not a good thing IMO.  That’s not why I check out from the craft beer shop any time I want and leave with California in the 4 pack.

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A Taste of Craft Beer History Reveals Today’s Higher Standards

A few weeks ago I hit one of the larger craft beer retailers in the area in search of nothing in particular.  Just looking to pick up a few options for the coming weekend.  No agenda.  All Quests for a Holy Ale temporarily suspended.  Just as well, I’d left my armor and coconuts at home and had I encountered Tim or a ferocious rabbit in the tequila aisle I’d have had to have run away for I’d also left my Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch in the booster seat of my car – the pink one (the seat – not the car).

Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

Anyway,  unprepared to dispatch with a mortal foe I suspended the Quest and perused the aisles for less dangerous options.  Then a powder blue six pack in the Sam Adams section caught my eye.  New Albion Ale.  What? I’m pretty sure I would have noticed a tricked out DeLorean in the lot so I didn’t think this beer was delivered in a time machine.  Probably a good thing because I doubt the hops would have tolerated close proximity to a flux capacitor.  Something tells me florescent lamps are far more friendly.  OK, so if it wasn’t transported in time from circa 1980 then it had to have been brewed recently.  Turns out it was.  Samuel Adams brewed it using the original recipe with New Albion founder, Jack McAuliffe.  News to me.  So much for keeping up with he latest craft beer news.

New Albion Ale (brewed Samuel Adams)

New Albion Ale (brewed by Samuel Adams)

New Albion Brewing didn’t have a long run.  Even though they were only around for 6 years (1976 – 1982), their flagship hoppy pale, New Albion Ale, was critically regarded as a game changer.  It was one of the original legitimate craft beers along with Anchor Steam (already an elder statesman having been first brewed in 1971) and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Considered revolutionary in 1977 when Alan O’Day ruled the charts with Undercover Angel, I wondered how it would stand up to my modern palate.

Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale are brewing stronger than ever.  They’re practically living craft beer dinosaurs like Galapagos Tortoises, Gila Monsters or Abe Vigoda.  As much as I still love to grab an Anchor Steam from time to time, I don’t feel as though I’m tasting history when I pour it.  New Albion, on the other hand, speaks differently to me.  Samuel Adams revived the wooly mammoth with this one and I really felt as though I’d be drinking back in time as I poured it, appropriately, into one of their glasses.

Nice rich amber pour.  Modestly hazy.  Supporting a short, dusky white head.  Good looking brew.  Not a whole lot going on in the aroma.  A little citrus.  A little toasted malt.  Unfortunately, the wallflower aroma was telling.  Sadly, the flavor was uninspiring.  Modestly hoppy with caramel and milk chocolate notes.  Nothing wrong – not unbalanced, just not worthy of having been a wingman in craft beer’s first attack squadron.  Was I being too harsh?  I have that tendency from time to time so I thought I’d check with the crowd over at RateBeer to see what the wider consensus was.  The reviews of New Albion largely agreed with my basic impression.  Nothing special here.  Not a drain pour by any stretch but certainly not a world class brew.

Not by today’s standards.  And that’s where the magic and legacy of Jack McAuliffe became apparent.  Our standards have grown with the wider variety and bigger, bolder brews that New Albion helped pave the way for. We expect more.  Hell, Sierra Nevada Pale barely gets noticed against a backdrop of today’s hoppy standard bearers like Pliny the Elder, Hopslam, Ruination or Nugget Nectar as a result of its own success.

So in the end, New Albion Ale came across as, well, ordinary, but thanks in part to the handful of years when it was regarded as a pioneering brew, it set the stage for today’s extraordinary brews.  Cheers to the hoppy history lesson!

Craft Beer’s Mt. Rushmore

The Inspiration for Mt. Hopmore

The Inspiration for Mt. Hopmore

President’s Day is a time for honoring all of our past Presidents but somehow the guys that managed to get themselves chiseled into that mountain seem to be the only ones that actually get honored.  Not sure what Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, or Warren Harding did to miss the cut up there but perhaps there was a remarkable likeness of their faces molded into the mud beneath the pines after a storm one Thursday afternoon.  Or not.

In any event, images of Mt. Rushmore got me thinking about which craft beer pioneers I would want to see carved into a mountain.  Who belongs on craft beer’s Mt. Hopmore?  I started with a list of 7 or 8 names (ok, exactly 8).  Naturally, my target number was 4.  After all, the real thing has 4 and it looks really good under those fireworks at night.  Coming up with exactly 4 craft beer luminaries for Mt. Hopmore was; however, almost impossible.  Then it hit me – it’s my concept.  My mountain – my rules.  That was easy.  So my Mt. Hopmore has 5 giants of craft beer.  In all honesty, the first 3 seem to me absolute givens.  The last 2 were just too hard to differentiate between one another.  Both clearly worthy and both identical in one important respect.  Anyway, here they are:

Fritz Maytag - Anchor Brewing

Fritz Maytag – Anchor Brewing

First of all, doesn’t this guy look the part? Swap him out today for Teddy Roosevelt and almost nobody would notice the difference.  Hard to argue against including the guy who took over a failing second-rate brewery and turned it into, arguably, the flagship craft brewery that lead the way for all the others to follow.  A true craft beer icon.

Ken Grossman - Sierra Nevada

Ken Grossman – Sierra Nevada

It’s often said that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the one – the Neo of craft beer.  OK, I just said it and I’ll repeat it a bunch of times (though not here – there’s a limit to how much I really want to torture you) so it’ll eventually be often said.  Ken Grossman opened minds and palates to hoppy, flavorful ales and even though Sierra Nevada Pale pales in comparison to today’s hop bombs, many of them would never have been brewed if not for his vision and determination.

Jim Koch - Boston Beer

Jim Koch – Boston Beer

How can you ignore the guy who brought Samual Adams, an American patriot, to the masses by brewing it to them?  Too many good reasons to carve him into a mountain even if Boston Beer is, well, very large (and advertises – a rarity in the craft beer industry).  He’s been a huge supporter of small, independent craft brewers.

Sam Calgione - Dogfish Head

Sam Calgione – Dogfish Head

You knew he had to show up.  As outspoken as anyone in the industry today and a formidable foe to Big Beer.  The Godfather of extreme brewing, he’s come up some outrageous brews.  Love him or hate him, if you’re a craft beer fan you have a strong opinion one way or the other.  He’s elevated the debate surrounding beer vs. wine as a companion to fine food and he gets extra credit for pissing off Big Beer with his short-lived Brewmasters series.

Greg Koch - Stone Brewing

Greg Koch – Stone Brewing

Full disclose: I have a Stone Brewing addiction.  If my wife would have allowed it, our first child might have been named Arrogance.  That said, he founded Stone and the mountain is made of the stuff,  Aside from that, he’s turned craft brewing up to 11, pioneers sustainable industry and pokes a hoppy finger in the eye of Big Beer with every Ruination poured.  Oh, another thing: he’s made gargoyles very, very cool.

So that’s my Mt. Hopmore.  Agree? Disagree?  Take the poll and vote!

Budweiser Bares it All with Black Crown (or is it Black Clown?)

So I’m minding my own business tweeting about craft beer and occasionally terrorizing my buddies at It’s Just the Booze Dancing with outrageous comments to their insightful and entertaining posts when I see that Big Beer’s biggest bully, ABInBev, is about to launch another “premium” label beer.  This time the pig skipped the lipstick and went straight to the tight black cocktail dress.  Unfortunately for Budweiser, the dress doesn’t cover the mud stains beneath its slinky straps.  You’d think they’d know enough to address the mud problem given how prolific they are at slinging the stuff at craft brewers.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Bud, MillerCoors or anything related to Big Beer.  Anyone who follows my twitter feed or who’s ever shared a pint with me knows that.  When it comes to Big Beer I like to think of myself as more of an educated hater.  In this case, education meant buying a bottle and pouring it through its paces as I would with any craft beer (just like the Schlafly Dry Hopped APA I’m enjoying as I write this).  With a marketing slogan like “Discover Taste”, how could I not rush out and grab a bottle?

Bud Black Crown.  All dressed up - nowhere to go

Bud Black Crown. All dressed up – nowhere to go

“Discover Taste?” Wait…what? What the…? Are they finally admitting that all the other Bud products are tasteless swill?  I guess so.  Well, the ridiculous Super Bowl spots didn’t shed any light on it.  They were almost as confusing as Stanley Kubrick’s farewell flick, Eyes Wide Shut, though, mercifully, not nearly as long.  I doubt even most of the Budweiser execs have much a clue what their own Black Crown advertising is all about.  Maybe you can figure it out because I certainly can’t.

I also can’t figure out exactly what they’re up to with this beer.  Most of their other tactics are pretty transparent (to anyone who isn’t already blinded by thoughtless brand loyalty).  As craft beer has enjoyed explosive growth and market share at the expense of Big Beer over the past decade, the industrial brewers have engaged in a dizzying array of methods to confuse less educated, less discerning beer drinkers.  Big Beer’s lineup of fake craft beers like Blue Moon, Landshark, Schocktop & Leinenkugel are the most obvious examples.  They’ve long exercised bully tactics by dominating distribution and retail shelf placement in many markets all but forcing their way into weekend shopping carts.  More recently they seem to be recognizing that since they can’t beat the craft brewers at actually brewing legitimate craft beer, they can buy them.  ABInBev’s purchase of Goose Island in 2011 was probably the first of what may be an unfortunate series of such acquisitions.  MillerCoors took steps in that direction with Tenth and Blake. So where does Black Crown fit in?

Nobody would mistake this beer for a craft beer.  First of all, its too well advertised to be a craft beer.  Too slick.  Oh, and then it has “Budweiser” slapped all over it so there’s that.  It’s an entirely unremarkable brew.  Looks reasonably good in the glass for the 7 seconds worth of head retention but after that it has little to offer.  It smells like Budweiser – but a tad stronger.  It tastes like Budweiser – but with a tad more assertiveness.  So it’s a Budweiser – maybe with a slightly larger capital B.  But it has something else that its little brother doesn’t: a 6.0 ABV.  The boys at ABInBev are so proud of its higher alcohol content that they have it prominently displayed on the neck and 6 pack packaging.  No other Budweiser product waves the ABV freak flag quite the same way.

So maybe that’s it.  Maybe I shouldn’t refer to it as Black Clown after all.  Perhaps Bud Buzzed would be a better name.  I guess it’ll appeal to a certain segment of their demographic that’s looking for a quicker buzz.  I just wonder if they’ll mind the mud stains on the sheets the morning after they peel off that sexy black dress.