Friday, December 16, 2016

A Brewpub on Every Corner?

We're getting close to the end of 2016, which means it's time for a lot of "Best of" articles and end-of-the-year stats to start showing up. The Brewers Association has published its "Year in Review" graphic. Sorry about the long vertical size, but that's how the BA likes to do it:

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So there's clearly a lot of good things happening. However, if you stay on top of beer news, as I at least try to, you've also heard rumblings of distant thunder which might -- note, I say might --presage some sort of industry shake-out, a la the 1990s. Personally, I don't think demand for craft beer is going anywhere but up, but that doesn't mean that the industry can continue to grow at the break-neck pace we've seen in recent years. So all this got me thinking: what would the end state look like, if we extrapolate out from today?

My first thought is that there's still plenty of room to grow at the bottom, using Ben Millstein of Kodiak Island Brewing's "brewery as bakery" model. He reminds us that there was a time, before the rise of the supermarket, when every small neighborhood had its own local bakery, which baked bread daily. In some places this is still the case: when I lived in London, I could buy fresh baguettes baked daily a half block from my flat. So for a brewery, the idea is that you focus exclusively on your local market, building up local loyalty with fresh, delicious beers brewed to suit the local taste. Ben doesn't send his beers off The Rock; he's totally focused on his local market. This is also the idea behind the modern American brewpub, which started out as a restaurant which also happened to brew its own beer. At least theoretically, there's no reason you couldn't have such a brewery/brewpub anywhere you have a restaurant today. Obviously, in states like Alaska where the government limits the entry into the industry by restricting the number of licenses issued, this can't happen. But that's an artificial limitation, not an economic one.

Ben Millstein, Kodiak Island Brewing

More realistic economic hurdles are things like the availability of brewing equipment and the shortage of properly-trained brewers. Plus the fact that some restaurant owners simply won't want to deal with the extra work. After all, most restaurants out there could bake their own bread, if they really wanted to, yet the majority would rather buy it ready-made.

So, perhaps a brewpub on every corner isn't realistic, but a brewery or brewpub in every town should certainly be achievable. A hundred years ago, that's how it was in the Alaska Territory and across the rest of the country, at least in those portions which hadn't already voted themselves dry. Freshness and buying local are arguments which seem to be gaining new momentum, especially here in Alaska, and many of our breweries have already taken advantage of that and are poised to continue to do so.

My second thought is that while there's still plenty of room at the bottom, the middle is starting to get awfully crowded. The wholesale beer market is getting more competitive every day, with more breweries competing for the same limited shelf space. Ten years ago, breweries like Kassik's and Kenai River could open, start selling their beer locally,  and then start distributing kegs around the state with relative ease. There weren't that many breweries in the state to compete with for taps and shelf space, so breaking into big, new markets like Anchorage and Fairbanks was relatively easy. Today, there are many more breweries, and it seems like every other day another one of them announces it has signed on with a distributor or begun bottling or canning its beers. You can still be a successful enterprise in your own back yard of Kodiak, Homer, Haines, or Hoonah, but playing with the (relatively) big dogs on a state-wide level is only going to get tougher. And that goes double or triple if you want to send your beers Outside. Even long-established brewers like Sierra Nevada Brewing and the Boston Beer Company are seeing some flagship brand sales decline, as beer drinkers keeping searching for the next big thing.

My third thought is that nothing good is happening at the top of the market. Yes, AB-InBev has swallowed SAB Miller, which puts it in a dominant position in the world beer market. However, I think this has actually weakened its American position. As a huge international corporate behemoth, it's ill-equipped to fight on the new battlefields of craft beer, innovation and local connections. Plus, its sheer size had finally forced the regulators to start paying real attention to its activities. It increasing reminds me of a huge dinosaur, seemingly totally dominant, but completely unable to deal with the meteor streaking toward it. It will likely continue to make billions selling beer to the developing world, but it sales in the US are headed nowhere but down.

So what's the end game? Damned if I know. However, when I look back at where things stood forty years ago when I first took an interest if craft beer and compare it to today, I'm very optimistic. Whatever happens in the craft beer market, we are never going back to the bad old days when there were only a handful of craft brewers in the US.  And that's a good thing.

Now a couple of news items before some beer reviews.

As I mentioned two blogs back, Bearpaw River Brewing will be celebrating its one year anniversary tomorrow, December 17. The Birthday Bash will take place from 4 to 8 pm at the brewery. Here's what they have to say about it:

"We will be releasing our first bottled beer, a Russian Imperial Stout, which we have aptly named "Anniversary Ale." 10% ABV. 80 IBUs. We plan to brew this beer every year at this time to celebrate our birthday, and the holidays!

 Oh My Goodness Sammies & Pies will be parked out front serving up toasty gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to keep everyone well fed.

Wild Scoops will be on site with handcrafted Alaska ice cream made with our Mat Maid Milk Stout. We can't wait to try this with a glass of Milk Stout, or even the Imperial Stout!

We will have all 10 taps flowing with fresh local beer. We hope you can join us to celebrate a year of brewing craft beer in the Mat-Su!

 Cheers, Jack, James, Jed & Jake"

Yesterday, they announced what will be on all those taps:

Anniversary Ale - Russian Imperial Stout
 Frontiersman IPA
 Sluice Box Belgian
 Mat Maid Milk Stout
 Bearpaw River Lager
 Duck Hunt IPA
 Old Speckled Spruce Hen ESB
 JalapeƱo Lager
 Mat Maid Milk Stout on Nitro
 Humdinger IPA
 Long Johns Harvest Ale
 Zip Kombucha

Sounds like a fabulous time. I wish I could make it to Wasilla for it, and if you can, you should.

Second piece of news. I spoke to Brett Marenco of Girdwood Brewing Company, looking for an update on when it might be open. While all the fermenters and brite tanks have been installed, they are still waiting for their brew kettle and mash tun to be delivered from Premiere Stainless. Due to production delays, Premeire doesn't expect to have them finished before early next year, meaning they won't arrive in Gridwood until mid- to late- January at the earliest. Brett tells me that Girdwood Brewing as received all its required approvals and is just waiting for this equipment to arrive and be installed before it can start brewing. So we can hope to see beer start flowing in February or March, assuming no more delays in production and delivery. With any luck at all, folks will still be skiing in Girdwood when the brewery opens.

Tanks in place. Photo courtesy of Girdwood Brewing

Finally, you may have heard that Kenai River Brewing was having some trouble with its kitchen. Technical problems have been solved, more or less, and the kitchen is open from noon to 7:45 pm Wednesday thru Sunday. The tap room is open 11 to 8 pm, seven days a week. Here are photos of the regular menu and a recent daily special:

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Okay, let's move on to beer reviews. I have three more this time round:

Midnight Sun Brewing's Buzzwinkle Sour Wheat Ale: Brewed with locally grown crab apples, this beer poured a crystal clear gold with a nice white head. The aroma was laced with lightly tart notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. On the palate there were clean tart flavors, with notes of crab apples. Very light and refreshing. 4.5% ABV, 20 IBUs.

49 State Brewing's 907 Frontier-style Lager: Not sure what makes it frontier-style, but it poured a clear amber color with a nice off-white head. The nose was nothing but clean malt notes. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The flavor profile emphasized the malt, but with enough hop bitterness for balance. Very drinkable. 5.3% ABV. Check out the stylish label.

Boulevard Brewing's Tell-Tale Tart Sour Ale: This beer poured a clear reddish-gold with a small, off-white head that dissipated to a collar. The aroma had notes of light and tart citrus. Carbonation was good and the mouthfeel was light. The flavor profile was only slightly tart, and all the flavors seemed light. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing very impressive either. Okay, but routine. 6.2% ABV, 10 IBUs.

That's it for this blog. Not sure if I'll get another out before 2017, what with all the holiday events and such. So I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope 2017 is filled with peace and good beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Happy Anniversary & Christmas Shopping

Hello again! First off, I want to send each and every one of you best wishes on this most auspicious of occasions, the 83rd anniversary of Repeal. On December 5, 1933, at 3:31 pm local time, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, officially ending Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment. Personally, I've always been fascinated by the whole story of how Americans came to embark on the collective madness that Prohibition represented, as well as how we finally came to our senses. If you'd like to learn more about this, I heartily recommend Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, which is an excellent book on the subject. If visual media is more your style,  Ken Burns: Prohibition is an excellent documentary adaptation of Okrent's work.

Either one is an great choice as a way to learn more about this important but largely forgotten era in America's history. The reason I say that it's largely forgotten is that I see people continuing to make the same arguments in favor of drug and alcohol laws as were used by the folks who pushed for Prohibition a century ago. When will we learn that you cannot legislate morality, especially if you want to live in a free country?

I wrote last week that this blog would be all about Christmas ideas for beer lovers, so you can consider the book and DVD above to be my first suggestions. My suggestions will be made with the craft beer drinker rather than the brewer in mind. I'm not going to make any suggestions regarding books or equipment that are specifically for homebrewers; there is a ton of great new homebrewing gear out there, with more new gadget and things being created every day, but unless you know the details of a homebrewer's set-up and level of expertise, it's hard to make good suggestions. If you're shopping for a homebrewer, your best bet is to just ask them; they probably have a wish list as long as their arm. Homebrewing is like golf or guns in that respect: it's a hobby that you can pretty much spend unlimited amounts of money on...

So, let's talk about gifts for the average craft beer lover. I always like to start with books, because I'm a bit of a bibliophile. Here are five, published this year, that I think are worth you while:

The Pub: A Cultural Institution - from Country Inns to Craft Beer Bars and Corner Locals: This is a coffee-table-style hardback, bursting with gorgeous pictures of historic British pubs and sparkling text from Pete Brown, one of the foremost in our current crop of beer writers. Having lived in Britain for three years and spent many a pleasant hour in its public houses, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It would make a great gift for anyone who's been or is planning to go to Britain.

My next two choices are both first-person accounts. The Fermented Man: A Year on the Front Lines of a Food Revolution by Derek Dellinger is not focused so much on beer as on fermentation in general. The author decided to try to live for a year by consuming only fermented foods and beverages, which obviously includes many things besides beer, though beer did make up a substantial part of his diet.He's also the brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Company in Connecticut. The book asks questions about the role of fermented foods in maintaining our overall health, and supports the notion that we should be including more of them in our daily diet.

The second personal account is My Beer Year: Adventures with Hop Farmers, Craft Brewers, Chefs, Beer Sommeliers, and Fanatical Drinkers as a Beer Master in Training by Lucy Burningham. It recounts her year-long quest to become a Certified Cicerone. If you are unfamiliar with the Cicerone program, it is the equivalent of becoming a certified wine sommelier. The book's tone is light but interesting, as the author works to educate herself and her sense of taste in the art of enjoying and evaluating beer in order to pass the rigorous examination to become a certified beer expert.

You can't have a Christmas Beer Book list without having at least one book about beer and food on it. A decade ago that wouldn't have been the case, as such book were few and far between. However, in recent years, writers have begun to recognize that beer and food have a natural affinity that is at least as good and perhaps even better than that of beer and wine, and the number of books being published on the subject has increased accordingly. The best on on that subject that I have read so far this year is Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros by Julia Herz & Gwen Conley. As the sub-title implies, these two ladies are professionals in this business; Herz works for the Brewers Association and Conley is a biologist by training who has worked for several breweries and currently teaches at the University of California. The hardback takes a comprehensive look at the sources of flavors in beer, how they are perceived by our sense of taste, and how to create pleasing pairings with food. For my money, it's the best single book on this subject currently available.

For my final book recommendation, I've save the best for last. The Beer Geek Handbook: Living a Life Ruled by Beer by Patrick Dawson was my favorite new beer book of the year. I was already an admirer of Dawson's writing from reading his excellent Vintage Beer: A Taster's Guide to Brews That Improve over Time, published back in 2012. This time round, he's written a breezy, funny book full of cool facts and trenchant observations about craft beer and the people who love it. Ever craft beer lover should read this book; it'll make you a better beer geek, I promise!

Moving on from books, there's glassware, one of the "go to" gifts for beer lovers. However, before you decide to go this route, you might want to make sure this is something the recipient truly needs! If they're like me, they're probably hip deep in glassware, much of which never gets used, but just gathers dust. However, if they do need glassware, check out the Buffalo Beer Mug Company. The sell nice 16 oz. Belgian-style glasses, and they do some interesting etchings on them.

When it comes growlers, much the same rules apply as with glassware. It's best to make sure the recipient actually needs/wants another insulated and/or logo'd growler before you spend good money on one as a gift. However, if you want to really go overboard, you can always lay out $139 for the Rolls Royce of growlers, the uKeg 64 Pressurized Growler for Craft Beer - Stainless Steel from Growler Werks. It has all the bells and whistles: insulated, automatic CO2 regulator, external sight glass, customizable tap, you name it. It costs a pretty penny, but it's the top of the line for growlers on the market today.

If that's a little too rich for your blood, but the person you're shopping for gets to Anchorage or Girdwood often, you might consider giving them a cermaic growler from La Bodega. They're $59, but are lovely to look at at get you a 10% discount on growlers fills at the various La Bodega locations for life!

A good choice for stocking stuffers is food made with beer. There are plenty of choices out there, but one that I personally like is Beer Kissed. They make delicious cookies, caramel popcorn, and caramel sauces; the Scotch Porter Caramel Sauce looks especially yummy!

Often, the best gift choice for a craft beer lover is often just more good beer. If you're not a craft beer lover yourself, find a good beer store and ask for some suggestions from the staff. The folks at Country Liquors in Kenai or La Bodega in Anchorage can give you great ideas, especially if you can tell them something about the kind of beers the person you're shopping for likes to drink. Part of being a craft beer lover is enjoying trying new breweries and new styles, so gifts of beer are always welcome.

Finally, if you're looking for a gift for yourself or someone else, consider the gift of knowledge. I'll be teaching my beer class, CED A157 The Art & History of Brewing, again during the spring semester at Kenai Peninsula College. We meet once a week, on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:45 pm, with the first class on January. We cover lots of topics and taste beer in every class. If you've always wanted to learn more about craft beer, here's your chance.

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On that self-serving note, I'll close my Christmas Gift Blog. Enjoy the 83rd Anniversary of Repeal and keep warm in these cold, dark days of December.

Until Next Time, Cheers!