Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Bottle Share and the changing landscape of beer drinking

I love craft beer bottle shares. Many of the parties and events I go to now include a large group of serious beer fans, and because of that, I get to taste some really rare beers on a pretty regular basis. The concept of a bottle share is nothing new, but the term “bottle share” is becoming more commonplace as a way to describe what happens. It will be interesting to see how the bottle share concept translates into buying practices of craft beer drinkers as we move forward.

So basically, what happens during a bottle share is that everyone pulls select beers from their own personal collections and brings them to the party. And the bottles are opened sequentially and passed around so everyone who wants to taste can get a bit. It’s an awesome way to share great beers with like minded people. I enjoy these sessions, it’s a lot more fun to taste these beers with others as opposed to drinking them solo.

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The epic Bottleshare that happened after Friday night’s Bluesapalooza show in Mammoth August 2013.

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It’s interesting to think about your own beer buying practices and how they have changed over the years. If you are as old as I am, your beer drinking habits when you first started drinking beer may have been like mine: to get with your buddies, go to a grocery store (in CA) or liquor store and pick up a 6 pack, 12 pack, or case of whatever wasn’t the crappiest , cheapest beer there, but always with an eye on price. If you were celebrating, or had some extra cash, you might spring for an import beer like Moosehead or Lowenbrau, or a higher end American beer like Michelob or Henry Weinhards Private Reserve, but in general, Bud, Miller, Coors or the occasional malt liquor all worked. When I was in college and had no money, I remember $3 12 packs of Hamm’s were the standard in our house.

In the mid 1980’s as I entered the workforce, I became more discriminating, but my routine usually included buying a 12 pack of some standard American Lager (by then I was starting to favor Budweiser), and supplement it with something special, like some single bottles of Bass, Beck’s,  Guinness, or the occasional Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Then, as craft beer started to boom, the pattern stayed the same, but I began to seek out brewpubs when looking for on-premise beer, and though discriminating liquor stores had a decent selection of craft beer, high end beers were still a celebratory luxury item for me. Even when I worked at San Andreas Brewing Co., and could take 5 gallon corny kegs of our beers home with me, I still had some mainstream beer in my house, but by then my consumption of it was dwindling significantly.

When I worked for Anheuser-Busch, I always had plenty of Budweiser at home, and to this day, I still think Budweiser is the best American Lager out there, but my tastes really shifted into the craft realm, and by the late 1990s, my craft beer selection was crowding Budweiser out of my refrigerator.

When I moved to New Hampshire in 1999, and throughout my time there, I became heavily involved in homebrewing again, so most of the beer I drank was homebrew. And fortunately, I lived close enough to Massachusetts to be able to visit great beer stores and stock up on 22 oz bottles or 750 ml bottles on a regular basis (New Hampshire now has a few places that carry a great craft beer selection-my friend Bert Bingel owns a store called Bert’s Better Beers that is amazing).

We started having our annual Superbowl Party and Chili Cookoff when I lived in New Hampshire, and since many of my friends in New Hampshire were part of the Brew Free or Die Homebrew Club, everyone always brought a nice selection of craft and homebrewed beers for group sampling. The same thing happened at the monthly Brew Free or Die club meetings-everyone brought bottles of cool beers to share. This is where I first experienced the bottle share concept, though no one called it that back then. To this day, our annual Superbowl party involves a pretty nice bottle share, and I save some very special beers each year for it.

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My contribution to the Superbowl bottle share at our house. Our guests brought a lot more than this.

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I carried this bottle around through several moves across the country, and finally opened it in 2012 at our Superbowl party. Smooth as silk, intense sherry, simply amazing. One of those beers I’ll remember all my life.

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Bottle shares can quickly get out of control! Be careful.

As the craft brewing industry evolves, one of the things I am seeing is that the bottle share experience is manifesting itself in the way craft beer fans buy their beer. It appears to me that our society is evolving from the mode of buying a 6 pack or 12 pack of any single beer, and going towards drinking something different unique with the opening of each and every bottle. And maybe my viewpoint is biased, because of where I work and because of the people I hang out with, but I question whether the 6pack of IPA or Pale Ale is moving from the staple, supplemented with unique beers, to being a dinosaur. I say this as 6 pack and 12 pack sales of our Stone IPA are booming-so I may be way off-base, but I do think it’s worth pondering.

Take a look at IRI data, which is a tabulation of statistics for the kind of beer being bought in grocery chains and conveneience store chains. The old mainstay for craft beer, the Pale Ale, is sinking, while IPA is rising, But the top selling packages for the last several years have been seasonal offerings and mixed packs-usually mixed 12 packs. That’s indicative of craft beer fans’ desire for variety in what they drink.

So what does this mean for craft brewers? Well, it certainly means that new and unique beer choices are an increasingly important part of any craft brewer’s portfolio, and it may mean that relying on a flagship beer may be an outdated business model. I’m not really sure what is going to happen, but I know there are an increasing number of craft beer bars that refuse to carry flagship beers, and insist on pouring only those beers that are rare and/or unique. This is great for craft beer drinkers, but in all honesty, for the brewers, it’s a real challenge. While we all enjoy creating new beers, once you start distributing outside of your home state, the logistics of getting new beers approved by the governments (both state and federal) becomes quite time consuming and expensive. And every new beer requires label approval and abv certification-depending on what state the beer is going to. So if we’re going to a model that includes a lot more special releases or one-off releases, we need to pay very special attention to the timing of getting the approvals done, so we can release the beer when we want to, and when the beer is ready. And we need to have ample supplies of a variety of ingredients, primarily hops, which are getting increasingly difficult to secure. In short, it’s a ton of work, but it certainly keeps things exciting, fun, and challenging. We say frequently that this is the most exciting time in known history to be a brewer, and it certainly is exciting to be a craft beer fan, with all the variety and unique beers that are available.

 

Master Brewers Annual Conference

I just got back from the Master Brewers Association of Americas Annual Conference that was held this year in Austin, TX. This event is 3+ days of great technical sessions, presented by beer scholars, brewers, and scientists. I’ve been saying for a few years that this is the best brewing technical conference that happens in the United States, it is chock full of practical information and cutting edge research.
As a caveat, I am a member of the National MBAA Technical Committee, but I think I can be objective about this. I accepted a spot on the Technical Committee because I felt this was a great way to help make these conferences stay as valuable as they had been for me in years past. And my role on the committee is to assist with moderating sessions, review the technical presentations and posters that have been submitted, and suggest workshop topics for future events.

If you are a brewer, just a quick glance at the presentations and activities will prove my point about the value of this conference:
Wednesday October 23rd started with Austin area brewery tours and some pay-to-play Pre-Conference short courses on In-Line Instrumentation, Cleaning in the Brewery, and a Beer Steward Certificate Seminar (The MBAA’s version of the Cicerone Program). Many of the attendees showed up Wednesday for some board meetings and the opening reception.
On Thursday the Technical Sessions started in earnest. There were many Technical Sessions, in each one 4 presenters talk on very technical aspects of a certain part of the brewery process. This is the cutting edge brewing research that is being done all over the world, and excellent presenters from Germany, Japan and the UK complemented the American brewers and beer researchers. The presentations covered a diverse program that included research on brewhouse operations, world class management, beer filtration and stability, brewery utilities management, food safety and cleaning, sensory analysis, sustainability, and two excellent sessions on yeast and fermentation.

Then there are workshops, which are a little less formal and a little more practical reviews of things like food safety, brewhouse engineering, single malt and hops brewing, beer styles, gluten free brewing, and wastewater treatment.
And finally, there were the brewing fundamentals discussions on brewing water, the chemistry of which is still a bit of a mystery to me, so I found the talks very valuable.
Sandwiched in between the technical talks was a great trade show, a little less crowded than others, which gave me the opportunity to have great discussions with current and potential suppliers of ingredients and equipment. And several researchers opted to present posters, instead of oral presentations.

I always come back from events like this all fired up and ready to implement new methods of research in  our own processes, and new procedures or ideas that I got from trhe conference.

As an added bonus, we sell a lot of beer in Austin, and so we spent our evenings doing events and visiting some great accounts. One favorite event was a tap-takeover we did at Whip In, an old convenience store that has been converted into a bottle shop, grocery store and bar/restaurant, and has a very interesting food menu that combines elements of Indian food and Texas BBQ. It was really pretty amazing. And they brew their own beer too! “Namaste Y’all!”

We had an event at a great place called Easy Tiger, on the east part of 6th street, near the freeway. This place has a bake shop/coffee shop upstairs, and down the stairs is an excellent craft beer bar, with an outdoor patio that overlooks a beautiful creek. They have a relatively small menu, but the food is absolutely delicious, and focuses on meat.

On the west end of 6th street is a great craft beer spot called Star Bar, where we went very late one night. Friendly folks, and a great beer selection.

We had a “meet and great” at a newer place called Bangers, in an old residential neighborhood just south of 6th street that is getting renovated into a very hip area for restaurants and bars. Bangers does sausages and beer, they were smoking a whole pig when we were there. Not only do they have ana amazing selection of draft and bottled beers, but they also have a large outdoor area equipped with picnic tables, a music stage, and a dog run for those that don’t want to leave their dogs at home. All in all, a very cool place.

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The whole hog at Bangers

6th Street itself is world-famous for the live music, and we popped into a bunch of places to listen to bands. I saw some pretty incredible guitar playing (not surprisingly, lots of Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top influences), but unfortunately, most of these places have a pretty lousy beer selection. One exception is Chicago House, a craft beer beer just 1/2 block north of 6th St. No music when we were there, but a great beer selection. While we were there they were pouring Stone Enjoy By IPA, 10 Barrel/Bluejacket/Stone Suede Imperial Porter, and a cask of Ballast Point Sculpin with Citra hops.  My kind of place!

The first night we were in Austin, we went to two places north of 6th street, closer to University of Texas.  The Draught House was our first stop-great beer selection and a great spot to watch the World Series. The next stop was Pinthouse Pizza, a pizza place with a brewery that reminded me a lot of Pizza Port here in SoCal. Great beer selection. We didn’t try the pizza but it sure looked good!

And of course, no trip to Austin could be complete without having some barbecue. This time, our rep Steve took us out to the famous Salt Lick, where I had the absolute best brisket I have ever had in my life. Next time in Austin I’ll be sure to try Franklin’s BBQ downtown, I heard from many it’s the best, but you have to stand in line for hours (or pay someone to do it for you).

Austin salt lick photo

 

The one thing I didn’t get to on this very full trip was visiting a brewery, like Real Ale or Jester King. There are a lot of brewers in Austin now, making some very good beers. I certainly sampled many, and enjoyed them. Next time!