Today, I poured samples of beer at the North Carolina State Fair. This year is the first time that samples were being poured there, so it was a novel experience for everybody involved. The staff, the brewers, the patrons, etc.
Because I didn’t have much to eat today I found myself getting irritated by little things, like the fact that I had no idea how to get into where I was pouring beer. Like the fact that I was ridiculous and didn’t ask my distributor to bring beer over for me. Like the fact that the greeters in the complex we were in kept saying, “Yeah! The wine is this way!” but neglected to say anything about beer. It was fine. The whole thing turned out to be a great success, grumpiness notwithstanding.
It was actually an incredibly refreshing day. There’s nothing like having a 50-year old, grey-haired, Southern boy walk up to you wearing a John Deere t-shirt, dirty jeans, and a yellowing farm equipment hat, staring at the bottles you’re serving for a bit and then saying, “Whaddya got that’s dark?” to remind you why you’re in this business. Sometimes you get so mired in sales figures and brewery efficiency and you get so involved in the business around you that you forget that a lot of what this is about is giving people good beer that makes them happy.
But tonight I had a bit of an epiphany – at the very least an idea. I think I still need to think about it (and write about it), and I probably won’t even define it perfectly here today, but it’s a start. Here’s what happened:
A lady came up to my table. She was probably mid-50s to mid-60s, short cut, curly, dyed red hair with grey roots. She was wearing a zipper sweatshirt over a blouse and some mom jeans. She was staring down at the bottles that I had but not touching them, clearly not making eye contact with me.
I asked her, “Would you like a sample?” She nodded, so I continued, “Do you want just one or do you want to try all three?”
“Just one,” she said.
“Well, then, what kind of beer do you like?”
Pause. She looks up at me and says, “I like ales and.. uhh.. lagers. Ales and lagers.”
Normally, this is the kind of thing that I internally roll my eyes at. It’s the kind of thing you laugh about with other brewers at beer festivals. You want to snarkily respond to them, “Oh, you like BEER? GOT IT.” You know what they mean. I drink that fizzy, yellow stuff – those are lagers – and sometimes I drink stuff that isn’t fizzy and yellow. Those are ales.” Probably. Maybe.
So, I talked to her a little bit about flavor. Caramel and toffee, chocolate and smoke, oranges and pineapples. I kinda wanted to tell her, hey – it’s okay. I know you’re intimidated by this stuff, but “I don’t know” is a fine answer. Let me help you. And while I was talking to her it occurred to me in such a moment of clarity that it actually stopped me mid-sentence, and I paused in the middle of a tasting before I went on.
Of course she doesn’t know what she likes. Up until now, the people who were making the beer that she was drinking didn’t care what she likes, they care what she buys.
Now, look, I care that she buys. After all, I need to make money. I have employees to pay and beer to make, but follow me for a little while:
This, to me, might be the new definition of “craft”: People who care about YOUR beer.
Today, I was pouring an English Mild Ale (caramel/toffee), a Saison (pineapple/oranges), and a Smoked Rye Stout (chocolate/campfire). If she would have said to me, “I really love IPAs” I would have said, “Hey, sorry. I have nothing for you, but the three other breweries here all have great IPAs. They’re about 4 booths away from me. If you want to try something else, I’ve got your lineup.” because I am so much more interested in that lady having a good experience than I am in getting her $7.
Mass market beer doesn’t give a shit about what you like in a beer. They’re not even trying to sell you that anymore. They’re trying to sell you sex appeal, cool friends, and chug-friendly packaging. Like it? Of course you like it. You’re getting drunk, aren’t you? Ugh.
Craft: We care what you drink.
It’s why beer festivals are so damn frustrating. They’re full of jackasses that come up to your booth and order, “Whatever.” No, man. Not whatever. I spend a lot of time and effort making these beers taste great. I want YOU to LIKE them. Bud Light is whatever. PBR is whatever. If you want to get whatever, just spend your $7 on a plastic bottle of Popov Vodka and tuck in for the night. These beers are ideas. They’re concepts. They’re little glasses of art. I want them to speak to you in the same way they speak to me. You might not even like it, and I’m okay with that, but I want you to just try because I care about what you like.
“Whatever” means fun is drunk. In craft beer, fun is drinking.
So, I care. And I think that’s what sets us – collectively – apart. At Mystery the other night, we had a conversation about what the mission of our company really is. Why are we here? It’s difficult trying to convey the sense of, “We’re here because we feel there’s an underserved market of people who want seasonal-only beer.” or some sort of line like that. It feels too corporate and stodgy, but it’s important to give the company the right direction as you grow. We’ll have something like that (but better) once we finish the process, but the following underpinning idea is still there.
We care about what you like. We want to make great beer and we want you to like it and enjoy it because it’s delicious and that makes everyone happy. That’s what makes us craft.
Because I feel like I need to finish my story, she tried all three. Stout was the hit. She liked the Mild, the Saison was okay (“Too much like Blue Moon.” – which I DID internally cringe at, because it’s not ANYTHING like Blue Moon and also Blue Moon. Eh.), but the Stout!
“I ain’t never had a beer like that. It tastes like chocolate!”
What I wanted to capture in a glass – I told her – were those cold fall evenings, when you’re walking outside and there’s smoke coming out of someone’s chimney, and the smell of damp leaves is in the air. That quintessential fall evening.
“Well, you sure got it.” she said. And she handed me her $7 and left with a bottle.
This past week, I was invited to take part in an event called Free the Brews hosted by Generation Opportunity.
Generation Opportunity is a nationwide non-profit funded by the Koch Brothers. They claim to be non-partisan, but they share funding mechanisms with a number of conservative groups and their messages are certainly libertarian/tea party heavy. As it appears to me, they are a group aimed at getting Millennials to vote conservative in the name of pro-business, or anti-fun, or something. Millennials are already known to skew more liberal than previous generations, so I guess this is a run at convincing a certain amount of them that they’re conservative, really. GenOpp is co-opting the craft beer industry largely under the banner of “down with the three-tier system”, or to put it succinctly, “Free the Brews.”
If you know me, you know I am not what you would call “conservative” unless we’re talking conservation of mass.
So, then, you might ask, what the hell was I doing at this event?
Well, a little history:
Back in May, Generation Opportunity wrote an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer titled “Free North Carolina’s brews from archaic regulations”, written by the head of the group in North Carolina, Alex Johnson. It highlights some issues that are, indeed, issues in North Carolina, but also puts focus on things that really have no bearing, and some that are plain wrong. The primary message is “regulation is bad.”
The NCBWWA responded with a piece titled “There’s a reason N.C. is such a great beer state” in which they make the claim that beer here is great because regulation is AWESOME and also the distributors made it great.
The real truth, of course, is that what makes North Carolina a great beer state is the beer and that without the beer from the breweries we’d all be getting shitfaced on Muscadine wine right now.
Anyway, as President of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, I wrote an op-ed response… which never got published. Here’s a PDF if you’re curious what I had to say; it’s not really the point today.
When GenOpp announced the Free the Brews events, they invited the Guild to take part and the Guild was – understandably, I think – nervous. While GenOpp is championing some of the causes that the Guild believes in, they have reckless rhetoric. It’s the kind of rhetoric that creates political opponents. The Executive Director and I talked about it, and we felt that we didn’t want a narrative about beer to exist in North Carolina without our direct participation. We also knew that this event was happening whether we were there or not. So we agreed to take part. It was a calculated risk.
In the week leading up to the event, I was contacted by a lot of friends asking me something along the lines of “What the hell are you doing?” I had a lot of press contact me and ask me if I was a member of GenOpp (I’m not), or how did the Guild come to co-sponsor this event (we didn’t).
On the day of the event, a previous set of Free the Brews events were brought to my attention up in Detroit. They were followed up by an Op-Ed piece by GenOpp: Detroit, Michigan’s Newest Craft Beer City.
Here’s a snippet:
The most burdensome law is the three-tier system which requires that brewers, distributors, and retailers exist as separate entities. Brewers who produce over a certain number of barrels of beer cannot sell their products directly to consumers. Instead, they must sell to a distributor who then sells to the retailer. Not only does this steer profit toward the middle-man, it also makes expansion and experimentation difficult.
The culture of craft beer in Michigan and across the country is one of camaraderie, and brewers are always trying to push the envelope with new and exciting brews. Unfortunately, regulations make it hard for brewers to drive change. When Reith decided it was time to open Atwater and bring his passion for beer to the young people of Detroit – all of whom are over 21, of course – he faced a few setbacks.
“I had to go through every level of government just to get a permit,” he lamented at the event. Just waiting for the permit to go through federal, state, and local officials took almost twelve months. If regulations were streamlined to make the permit process simpler and speedier, more craft breweries would be able to open, spurring an increase in local competition and more creative products for consumers to choose from.
Less government means more opportunity, more craft beer, and more freedom.
And here’s the response, written by Mark Reith (who was quoted out of context above) and his distributor, Imperial Beverage: Michigan, craft beers, and growth
A snippet from that article:
Gardner took a remark about permits out of context and craftily implied that it was an attack on Michigan’s entire alcohol system. In fact, during the event Gardner attended, Atwater never addressed Michigan’s alcohol regulations. Just cumbersome permits.
What must be stated unequivocally: Michigan’s system works for the small brewery, not against it.
So, I was nervous going into the event on Thursday. I did my best to tell this story: We have it good in North Carolina. Our laws are pretty damn friendly. There’s a reason that breweries are moving here from across the country and opening up at the fastest rate in the country. It’s not because we’re all suffering here. Are there laws that need to be updated? Sure. The bulk of the law was written in 1938 and updated in 1983. The craft industry barely existed the last time the laws were revised. We’re in a different place now, and the laws will change to reflect that, but de-regulation is not the answer.
We’ll see if I am misquoted in my very own op-ed this week. If so, my distributor and I will probably have a blast crafting a rebuttal. The literature (seen to the right here) is definitely along the same lines as the Michigan event.
But that’s also not the point (he said, 1000 words in):
The point is this: Craft beer is currently in this really strange space in politics in which we are neither the darlings of the right or the darlings of the left. We enjoy support from both sides of the aisle, and it enables us to make a lot of progress when it comes to updating old laws to fit a new industry. The last thing we need is to be co-opted by A Cause. As soon as we are seen as a Republican issue or a Democratic issue things are going to get really sticky.
Look, changing laws takes a long damn time. It’s a complicated system, and not just because of the network of relationships and partisanship, or that some laws are only considered during certain sessions in non-election years, but also because changing a law in one place has far-reaching effects. Simple word changes in a law can have effects that go far beyond the intent of the author. Tax changes can change the entire course of state budgets. It’s natural that the pace of industry will outstrip that of policy. That’s okay. Policy changes to fit us, eventually, so long as we work reasonably and responsibly toward an established goal.
I’m happy that there are other groups out there talking policy. I’m glad that there’s apparently a nationwide discussion about alcoholic beverages that isn’t about restricting them further. On the other hand, I’m terrified that it’s happening outside of the brewing industry. Even brewers don’t necessarily agree about what is best for breweries. The possibility of solutions being proposed by people who don’t even understand the problems – just because they want to further a broad political agenda of “more young voters” – could hamper our industry in a real way. Grassroots support is great. Grassroots policy is tricky.
So, my message for Millennials and GenOpp and everyone is this. If you really want to help craft beer and breweries? Go to your local brewery and buy a pint. I promise that they will pursue their own interests just fine. In fact, one of the reasons that there’s a North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild is precisely that: to help brewers pursue their own interests. The Guild has a robust legislative agenda. We’re working toward getting a lot of laws updated. It’s the ones that brewers are concerned about, and I promise all of them are working toward getting beer into your hands because that’s how we continue to pay our mortgages. We know the people involved, we know how these laws will effect brewers. We’re doing a lot less guess work than an outside group would.
If YOU want to get involved and follow a call to action, join the NC Craft Brewer’s Guild and volunteer, Support Your Local Brewery through the Brewer’s Association, but please, let’s leave partisan politics and reckless rhetoric out of it.
Today, I ran across an article in a local mag. The lede reads, Snubbed: Why Raleigh isn’t a top 10 emerging beer town.
The article is a response, of sorts, to a listicle in the Seattle Post-Intelligence: America’s Top Ten Emerging Beer Towns.
The list in the SPI doesn’t bother me much. I don’t see anything in it that’s necessarily out of place, and besides which lists are lazy journalism. Lists are what happens when somebody has to get an article out but doesn’t want to take the time to actually write an article. It’s why BuzzFeed exists. It’s not based off of research or any sort of really quantifiable criteria, it’s based off of personal experience, and it’s largely opinion regardless of the fact that this dude thinks he’s got some sort of repeatable experiment. It’s fine. You could also title this article, “10 Emerging Beer Cultures That I Have Recently Visited and/or Read About”. “Top Ten” is click bait. You’ll also note that it leaves off Washington DC and Richmond, VA, both of which have fantastic emerging beer cultures.
No, what bothers me is the thesis of the TBJ article which is bold and clear in the last paragraph:
Perhaps Raleigh isn’t making recent beer lists – not because there isn’t a plethora of breweries to choose from – because these breweries aren’t doing anything to stand out.
Let me posit another hypothesis: Maybe Raleigh isn’t making recent beer lists because of lack of media support in our local markets. I mean, how else is some guy from Seattle supposed to know that we have a great beer culture? Right now, he reads your article and his response is, “Nailed it.” Nothing to see here, move along.
Now, look, I realize that negative and controversial headlines move papers, but what happened here is that an article got published in a market across country. That didn’t mention North Carolina at all and the TBJ wrote a followup that specifically calls out our local market in a negative way. Thanks for the support guys! Can’t wait to invite you to our next party!
Raleigh – no, I’m going to talk about the entire Triangle, because it takes up the same geographical space as some of the other emerging beer towns in the U.S., and actually includes all 32 of the breweries that are referenced in the TBJ – is one of the fastest growing beer areas in the country. Alongside those 32 breweries we also have another 10 breweries in planning (30% increase!) that I know about and probably more that I don’t know about.
In those 32 breweries, in the last year alone, we have a World Beer Cup Gold Medal (White Street, for their Kolsch), a World Beer Cup Silver Medal (Lynwood Brewing Concern, for their Black IPA), and a GABF Bronze Medal (Carolina Brewery for their Oatmeal Porter). We have 10 medals from the U.S. Open Beer Championship (LoneRider, Silver, Porter; Lynwood Brewing Concern, Bronze, Dry Irish Stout; White Street, Bronze, Foreign Extra Stout; LoneRider, Bronze, Barleywine; White Street, Bronze, Black IPA; LoneRider, Bronze, Black IPA; Fullsteam, Gold, Cream Ale; Fullsteam, Silver, Vegetable Beer; LoneRider, Bronze, Chocolate Beer; Mystery, Bronze, Wood and Barrel Aged Beer).
So, you know, whatever. Nothing special. Except for the worldwide recognition of excellent beer across a vast range of styles. Yawn.
Fact is this: The Triangle is a great place to have a beer. Is there a lot of “boring” beer out there? Sure. There’s a lot of Pale Ale, IPA, Hefeweissen, Porter, Stout, Kolsch, and whatnot out there, and the slice of the market that is Double Sour Imperial Cucumber and Chive Stouts is fairly small. You know why? Because that’s true everywhere. This country’s beer culture is built on those every day beers. The reason they’re everywhere is not that they’re boring, it’s that they’re good. You think they’re the same everywhere you go? Line up 30 IPAs from Raleigh/Durham’s breweries and get ready for a rollercoaster. They’re all vastly different and all amazing in their own way. We wouldn’t have a beer culture in this country if it weren’t for those every day beers being the inspiration for beers that would become every day beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Anchor Steam, etc.
I can make a long list of classic American beers that sound like they don’t “stand out” but that the backbone of this country’s beer industry are built on.
But here’s the other thing about this article. The original criteria of the listicle as reported by the TBJ is this (emphasis mine):
To get on this list, “you need one or more great, veteran brewers in that culture; people others can learn from and emulate. And, most of all, you need a population that’s avid, open-minded, culturally aware, adaptable, adventurous and ready to embrace the Journey along with that new brewery,” the blogger writes.
So, I ultimately read this TBJ article as a slight against our beer drinking population. Raleigh/Durham drinkers, are you really going to take this? I read here that you’re not open-minded, culturally aware, adaptable, adventurous, or ready to embrace a new brewery. To me, the way the TBJ article reads, regardless of the quality of the beer – which is clearly there – we’re not an emerging beer culture because of the quality of the drinker. The crowd at my pub suggests that this isn’t true, but I’m not out drinking with you.
Here’s my call to action: Prove that shit wrong. I know you’re better than that. I see people coming out to our “Sour Sundays”, I see complex and interesting beer styles being gobbled up, I see local support for local breweries every day. And while maybe the author of this article didn’t do the best job doing local research before publishing a nastygram, maybe she shouldn’t have had to do research to know how much local drinkers dig the local beer scene.
So, go forth, drink local, support local, and let’s make sure that articles like this never darken our local media again.
Dear Ms. Kurry, I would like to personally invite you on a tour of the Triangle’s breweries to show you that they are anything but unspectacular. We’ll start here at Mystery and I will personally drive you around all day to make sure we hit as many phenomenal spots as possible. I’m afraid that all 32 breweries may not be possible in one day, since that amounts to 4 per hour in an 8-hour period (to say nothing of drunkenness), but I’ll get you to at least 10 that will blow your socks off. Drop me an e-mail, we’ll make it happen.
I’ve been kind of struggling over whether or not to write this. Partly because it comes off as something of a “woe is me” kind of post and partly because it looks like an excuse, but in reality it’s just me being frustrated and venting. So, hi, I have a blog.
Well, it IS something of a “woe is me” post, I guess. But, here goes.
Here at Mystery, we use a lot of specialty malts. You could probably argue that the only thing that we use is specialty malt because we don’t use any base 2-row malts. All of our base grain is either Pilsner Malt or Maris Otter depending on the style. For a handful of our brands throughout the year, we use very specific malts because of a very specific flavor we get from it.
Let me explain that last sentence. One some very base level, malt is malt. The Cara malt from Crisp will get me the same basic flavor as the Cara malt from Simpsons, which will get me the same basic flavor as the Cara malt from Patagonia or a blend of Crystal 10 and Crystal 20 from Briess.
It’s not entirely true. They all have their own character, but when blended into an overall beer the only people who are really noticing those things are the people inside the brewery that have been around since last year’s run of the same beers and have tasted them a LOT. That’s just 3 of us, really.
We have some ingredients, however, that have very specific characters that we feel aren’t reproducible in other malts. The one that specifically jumps to mind for me – primarily because I’ve been having a problem with it – is Simpsons Golden Naked Oats. It is, without a doubt, one of the primary driving flavors in Six Impossible Things, our Chocolate Breakfast Stout (and pretty much our most popular beer). I haven’t been able to find anything that tastes the same. We have a handful of grains like that. They’re normally from small foreign producers. You’re probably already guessing what I’m going to write about.
This winter in particular, our supply chain has been a complete disaster. We’ve had orders come in wrong, we’ve had orders get lost, we’ve had deliveries show up a week late. It’s been one thing after another. In the case of our oats, we bought the last few bags in the entire Southeast in mid-January after being out for the better part of a month. I had to buy two more bags from a homebrew shop to do another batch of beer. As near as I can tell there are no Golden Naked Oats in the US. Anywhere.
The container that the oats are supposed to be in left England (which, of course, has been experiencing catastrophic flooding) late. It got caught in a storm on the Atlantic Ocean. Twice. It was finally supposed to arrive this week just in time for the winter storm that hit this weekend. Once it finally gets unloaded and goes through customs it has to take a truck to Minnesota where it’ll get portioned out to more trucks who will then get it to warehouses around the country around a week after that at which point I will finally be able to order it ASSUMING that order is handled correctly.
So what’s the result? The result is that I stop producing my most popular seasonal beer because I, quite literally, cannot do it. It’ll be weeks or longer before I get it back out in the market, at which point it’ll be mid-spring and totally out of season. It’s frustrating.
So, why the bitch session? Because nobody can see it. To my distributor, to bars and restaurants, to customers in my pub, I’m just not making enough beer, and I’m not making enough of something that will make all of them happy, too. It’s an excuse. What do you mean you can’t get oats? I can go get Quaker Oats at the grocery store and bring you some.
No, you can’t.
And I feel very responsible for the fact that every piece of the chain below me is disappointed, and I feel, too, that I have no recourse in the supply chain above me. Not just for this instance, but for anything.
What am I going to do? Not order again from my largest supplier? Hold them financially responsible for the fact that I’m losing business because they can’t get an order right? What leverage does a small brewery really have? We can’t order in all of the grain for the year up front. We don’t have that kind of cash, much less that kind of storage space. I would imagine that most small breweries are in the same boat that I am.
In a lot of ways, this seems like it would be so much worse if I had a flagship. At least now I can call it quits on a brand and move on to the next season, better luck next year. What happens if you have one of these things happen to your flagship? You change the recipe? Change the flavor? Screw consistency?
So, the next time you see a brewery with what looks like supply problems, maybe think a little bit about how supply chain makes a difference.
Weird article, right? I know. I just got back to my hotel room. I’m in between sessions on the Saturday of GABF 2013. I’ve had about 3 hours of sleep and my mouth still kinda tastes like whiskey (and a little like shitty cigar), so I’m definitely not at my finest. With all of that, you could probably construe this article as me being a sore loser. In reality, writing is my way of dealing with things; this is a lot closer to therapy for me and you just get to read it.
I’m disappointed. I can’t imagine any brewer who doesn’t get a medal not being disappointed. After all, we don’t get into this business to make mediocre shitty beer, and if I didn’t think my beer was fantastic I probably shouldn’t have started in the first place. You spend a LOT of money and a lot of time getting out to this thing, and it’s an exhausting, insane, shitshow of a week. You kind of want to get something out of it.
I came to the GABF this year knowing that I was at pretty long odds to pick up a medal today. Here’s why:
I’m still pretty disappointed.
It’s nice to have people come up to the booth and tell us that the beer is great. It would be awesome to have a piece of hardware. Shit happens, eh?
Here are a couple of observations that I’ve been going over in my head:
Now, let’s pretend your brewery made a Gratzer, which is a low alcohol, delicate, light, smoky Polish style beer. It’s got it’s own category (27E!) and style definition. In judging, however, it falls under “Smoke Beers” which is a huge category with a lot of BIG beers in it. Even if your brewery made a really fantastic gratzer and it was considered for a medal, if it went up against – I don’t know – a Smoked Russian Imperial Stout, then your delicate little gratzer gets really enormously overwhelmed in a tasting. And I think this is true regardless of how good the judges are. Judging is pretty subjective and pretty tiring to the palate, especially when you’re tasting really big aggressive beers like.. well… smoke beers. I’ve judged a lot of competitions and I know, too, that when it comes down to final rounds it can often be a matter of a subjective whim of a judge.
I’m not saying this happened. But I do feel like a lot of my beers are pretty delicate, and it’s what makes them good. They’re never going to stand up against giant smack-you-in-the-face flavors, and that’s why we’ll never do well in competition, but I think that blending categories together (out of necessity, I know) exacerbates that problem.
The solution is for me to lower my expectations.
And that’s it – for now. Until someone is douchey to me in the comments and tells me that my beer sucks (you’re wrong).
I’ve been a Red Sox fan for a long time, and so like I’ve been so used to saying in the past: Better luck next year. We’ll get ‘em.
Congratulations to all of the breweries at the GABF – not just the ones who won. There has been some really outstanding, amazing beer. Kudos and thanks for keeping beer great.