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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11 thoughts on “The Converging Coasts of Craft Beer

  1. To the shock of many, I can actually understand where you’re coming from. Ashville brewed and bottled Green Flash would be like a Ferrari made in Marysville, Ohio or a glass of Islay Whisky that was distilled in Northeast Philadelphia.

    On the flip side, does beer have terroir? I mean, the ingredients are sourced from all over the country and all over the world, so does it really matter where they brew it as long as they use the same ingredients and have an outstanding water source? I suppose you can argue that a beer made with wild yeast can only come from the source, but given how good brewers are at isolating yeast strains, could that wonderfully wild stuff be pretty much brewed anywhere as well? So many questions…

    • Once again… I’m minding my own business when the blog comment alert rousted me out of a moment deep contemplation. I was reasonably certain that I was close to figuring out how to synthesize a Higgs-boson on Twitter and then came the ping…

      That’s a great point regarding the sourcing of ingredients and location of the “final construction.” From a purely physical point of you, you’re correct. The beer could be brewed anywhere. After all, ABInBev brews the same exact beer with the same ingredients (including that extra special holy water at the end) using the same recipe at all of thier plants and the results are, from a consistency perspective, stunningly superb. So no, it doesn’t matter where the ingredients are put together.

      That said, my misgivings aren’t focused on practical, ingredient-focused issues. Authenticity to me means the beer has to be brewed in and distributed from it’s roots. A Sierra Nevada by any other mountain range just doesn’t cut it.

      Chers!

  2. My question would only be about one raw ingredient … the water. Yeast, Grains, Hops, etc. can all be grown and/or selected to spec but getting the water right is tough. If beer has a “terroir” it’s in the water. The big food and bev companies that I build for always tell me that getting the right water is the hardest thing. Water is cited as the reason no one has been able to produce at Formica’s Sub Roll outside of Atlantic City, NJ and why Anheuser Busch has a brewery in, of all places, Newark, NJ.. I am sure these brewers have done their due diligence but time will tell. Sometimes it not just about filtering the water to get it to “neutral” often there is something, a mineral or a chemical profile, that is all but imperceptible at the start but makes a big deal at the finish. We shall see (or taste) and judge for ourselves.

    • You’re right, water is the wild card – though not exactly left in its free range state by most (maybe all) craft brewers. “Burtonizing” (adding a precise combination of salts and other minerals to locally available water – originally done to mimic the local well water from Burton on Trent, England) is standard in commercial brewing. Even that “pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water one of those industrial mega brewers extolls isn’t left as pristine as the commercials imply. Imagine that.

      • Oh my goodness, the Wookie and the Alemonger are actually in agreement on something. And, to my horror, I must agree as well. Water was my first thought. Besides attracting brewers, Asheville is home to some timber, furniture and pulp mills. None of those industries are known for their environmental policies and have been known to have “releases” into waterways. I wonder if the quality and availability will be as good on the East Coast as it is in CA or CO.

  3. On more thought …. on thing that upsets me about this is, as brewers build local-ish facilities, I will no longer have the “I can’t get it home” excuse for a beer side trip during family excursions.

    • I would also hate to think that a West Coast invasion (and their venture capital) would curtail the efforts of NC favorites like Aviator or Duck-Rabbit or local Asheville brewers like Highland, French Broad or Green Man.

  4. Actually, Green Flash is building the East Coast brewery in Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach has many features synonymous with San Diego, including the beaches, military presence, and tourism, and it has a large population, and access to the major north-south highway arteries.

    The beer will be exactly the same on both coasts. The Virginia Beach brewery itself will be an exact replica of the brewery in San Diego. The water in San Diego goes through a process that involves stripping down and rebuilding (purifcation….the water in San Diego is very hard). The same process will occur in VB, using the same recipe, so there should be virtually no detectible difference. The best part is that people on the East Coast will now be able to get an even fresher West Coast IPA than before. As someone else pointed out, the ingredients in beers are sourced from all over the world, aside from the water. A West Coast IPA produced in VB will taste like the West Coast IPA in San Diego.

    Having larger breweries move into a previously locals-only area has not prevented any breweries from succeeding, unless those brewery had a poor product. Craft beer lovers want only one thing – superior tasting beer. There is room everywhere for lots of that! Case in point – when Green Flash opened in 2002, there were about a dozen “big” players (Stone, etc.), now there are almost 100 breweries, and more keep opening. As long as the beer that comes out of those breweries is good, they have and will thrive.

    And to the person who is worried about their vacation side trips being curtailed….the reason for you to visit the new brewery is to try the special locals-only releases. 😉

    Cheers! Lisa

    • Hi Lisa –

      First of all, thanks for stumbling down the dusty dirt road to the outskirts of the known internet to find this post. Don’t get me wrong – I’m going to welcome Green Flash’s presence in Virginia Beach – sorry for jumping the gun on that). It’ll be great to enjoy a truly fresh West Coast IPA or Le Freak up here in Jersey. I had a few Palate Wreckers in Scottsdale last year and they torched the one I had here a month or so ago. No question – that’s all good and I’m going to take advantage of it.

      My “muted excitement” stems from the emotional connection to southern California. For me that connection won’t be the same with a Green Flash bottle from Va even though I know the beer will be spectacular (and maybe objectively “better”). Regardless, I’ll be buying and enjoying it.

      If Jim Kenny is still there, tell him I said hi – he won’t remember me. We shared a few pints one afternoon at the Pourhouse in Westmont, NJ a couple years back. It’s random interactions with craft beer industry people like that (and with you here) that help make the craft beer community what it is.

      Cheers!

  5. I will give Jim your best. He is our VP of sales and still spending a lot of time “on the road” If you are around April 11 – 16, we are doing a 5-day New York City event tour. Check out the schedule and drop in and say hi. We will all be there!

    We have had lots of discussions about becoming active and friendly neighbors in our second home of Virginia Beach, while still remaining true to our San Diego roots. That is our intention. We are still Green Flash from San Diego, and it our goal is to transplant our company/beer culture and our world class beers to our new spot, while still remaining a humble and helpful neighbor/brewery and community citizen in Virginia Beach and the rest of the state. There are some great breweries in Virginia, and we hope to add something positive to that scene, not reinvent it. Think our new place as a San Diego out-post that will allow you to experience the Green Flash beers you have come to enjoy, with the added value of extra-freshness, and most likely a lower price. One of the big reasons to expand on the right coast, versus enlarge our existing plant is that we will reduce freight costs that make our beers much more expensive on the east coast than the west. Hopefully your attachment to the west coast will be over-shadowed by your extra money in your wallet! 🙂

    Your point is well taken….it illustrates the “brand value” that San Diego has as a beer destination. It has become synonymous with excellent beer and award-winning brewers..It is difficult to survive in San Diego if you don’t have excellent beer, so the bar is high. But I assure you that Chuck, our award-winning brewmaster and creator of all the amazing beers produced at GF, is responsible for the build-out and the set up of all of the brewing systems in VB, just like he was here, and he will be brewing and training the people on the East Coast, until he feels satisfied that they have it perfect, and will be back and forth with frequency, “forever”. Some of our brew staff will likely relocate, as the cost of living is a little more palatable in Virginia. So, while it won’t actually BE San Diego, if you were to come to the VB brewery when it opens, you likely wouldn’t know that you were in one place or the other (except for the weather!). As for the perception, I hope you will give us a chance to prove to you that Green Flash’s beers are “San Diego Green Flash Beers” regardless of which location they come from. Cheers! Lisa

  6. Pingback: Beer Review: A Hurricane’s Hoppy Lining | The AleMonger

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