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:

click to enlarge

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:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

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!

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