‘Nobody’ Cares About Independence in Beer

OK clickbait LOL headline is a J/K

Sort of.

Over on Good Beer Hunting today I’ve got a think piece that works to deconstruct the word choice beer enthusiasts have been obsessing over in recent months. “Craft” … “independent” … “good” … what does it mean? Who (actually) cares?

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What Does It Mean When Big Breweries Go ‘Small’?

For years, craft breweries have played off the myth and ethos of being small, whether a single person creating one-barrel batches at a time or a national powerhouse like Sam Adams. This has become more evident in recent weeks with the creation of the Brewers Association “independent” seal, meant to convey the ideals of the trade group in a literal way.

Non-AB InBev of Molson Coors breweries are now “small and independent,” two words tied together, not necessarily “craft.” But what some of these businesses are finding is that “small” in theme doesn’t mean the same in practice.

On Aug. 10, New Belgium bought California’s Magnolia Brewing along with minority investments from Belgium’s Oud Beersel and former Elysian co-owner Dick Cantwell. The move saved the business from closure after a series of financial issues.

This was replicated in a similar fashion just a week later when San Diego’s Green Flash, which already owns Alpine Beer Co. in addition to a production facility in Virginia Beach, announced it was opening another space – in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“Up to now, we sold about 40 percent of our beer in our home state, about a third of our beer on the East Coast — and that’s actually increasing faster and might be approaching 40 percent,” Green Flash co-founder Mike Hinkley told Brewbound. “But in all of the big, wide-open spaces of the Midwest, we’ve sold very little beer at all. This will help us to compete in those areas.”

The kicker here is how they’re doing it. Like New Belgium, Green Flash is entering the market through another distressed business in Ploughshare Brewing.

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In Beer vs. Wine vs. Spirits, Consider Similarities, Too

wine-spirits-beer-header

Sure, they’ve already ruined the housing market, dating and napkins (natch), but here’s one thing Millennials aren’t apparently killing: wine.

According to the U.S. Wine Market Council, Millennials, who make up a vague demographic of birth dates that nobody can apparently agree on, now consumer 42 percent of wine sold in the U.S., accounting for roughly three glasses of alcoholic grape juice per sitting. Through some backwards math (which I excel at these days), if we pull beers per capita (75.8 liters in 2014) and round up to an even 80, Americans consume 225 12-ounce servings over a year. For social graces, let’s say those beers are consumed on Fridays and Saturdays, which means that’s still just two servings of beer per sitting.

But let’s be generous and say Millennials can’t get enough of their craft beer to the point that they’re consuming more than the average American at 3 beers per sitting, putting it on par with wine. All this does it raise an interesting question that seems to be surrounding the beer industry in regard to the “armada” of wine and spirits coming for beer’s – pardon the turn of phrase – share of throat.

Here’s the situation in 2017, according to Wine Spectator: the U.S. wine market is expected to expand 1.1 percent and spirits are set to rise 2.5, while beer is estimated to decline by .7 percent. Volumes for these three options are wildly different to be sure – beer is cheaper and more readily available in simple terms of ounces – but in broad thematic terms, sets up a worthy discussion.

If you look at trends across the three segments, there are certain connecting points of interest. For example, lower-ABV options may be applicable to wine as well as beer. Flavored brands have been at the core of growth for some spirits, just like beer. Meanwhile, higher end, premium brands have helped move product in wineliquor and beer.

It’s all circular. Especially when it comes back to Millennials. This demographic is the driving force of the American economy – the most educated age group with increasing amounts of expendable income that thrives off aspects of authenticity. As one area of alcohol goes, it’s worth paying attention to the others. Fluctuations in one corner reverberate elsewhere, given the cross-drinking proclivity of today’s consumers.

There are some changes seen in this annual poll from Gallup, but rather than looking at the situation as beer vs. wine vs. spirits, the 50,000-feet view shows that there is plenty in which these beverages share, especially in terms of taste preferences and creating experiences.

What this doesn’t mean is that Millennials are killing the beer industry. Rather, it means that beer – and beer drinkers – have new trends to look at and consider. For all the anecdotes and data we can pull from the beer industry, don’t ignore the rest.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

True Romance: New Glarus Gives a New Meaning to Brand Loyalty

If you’re deep in the weeds or thick in the mash or whatever the appropriate idiom would be for someone who thinks about beer too much, you’re likely familiar with New Glarus. The Wisconsin brewery is a unique snowflake in the industry as one of the largest brewers in the country (#16 on the Brewers Association list) … and widely beloved … yet only sells its beer in its home state.

In 2016, the brewer sold 214,000 barrels … only in Wisconsin. To put that in comparison, New Glarus last year sold *more* than Oskar Blues (201,000 barrels), which is distributed nationwide. Or just a touch more than 21st Amendment and Rogue *combined*. Since 2010, New Glarus as grown production 133%, going from 91,937 barrels to 214,000.

So of course they’re going to start selling more. Per Brewbound, New Glarus is about to embark on scaling up, set to reach a future max of 400,000 barrels.

“Did I envision a 400,000 barrel brewery? Hell no,” New Glarus founder and president Deb Carey told Brewbound of the $12 million investment. “We thought we’d be an 8,000 or 15,000 barrel brewery.”

15,000 barrels? How quaint.

This all got me thinking about doing some silly, uneducated math. The best kind.

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Deconstructing What It Means to Be Best: Is It Beer or Experience?

The past week was a wild one of lines drawn and heated tempers – all over a logo.

Or, rather, a logo released by the Brewers Association to separate their “small and independent” members from other businesses managed to rile up beer enthusiasts, creating collateral damage of their good intentions. No matter what the success of the effort is in the long run, it’s clear that the business – for the geekiest and most committed – is entering a stage of new definitions in which “us vs. them” is merely a starting point for breweries to pledge their independence with a physical commitment of space on packaging.

But still, non-Brewers Association defined beer makes up about 87.5% of sales in the U.S., making it a mathematical impossibility that any significant number of drinkers will choose this battle as their last stand. “Small and independent” matters to consumers, but not in a way that any kind of majority (or “silent majority,” even) will create some kind of beer-focused coup and overthrow the centuries-long fact that humans really like drinking lager.

Among all this, I posed a question on Twitter inspired by a (civil!) Reddit thread: was the “best” beer you’ve ever had about the beer or experience?

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Citation Needed – What Does It Mean to Support ‘Independence’ in Beer?

The Brewers Association has created a new “independent” logo for businesses to display on beer packaging. As for its value as a good or bad thing, I’ll leave it to others.

This move is really interesting, as it fits so well within the BA’s mission and pairs perfectly with another recent decision to reserve certain kind of sponsorships for “craft”-defined breweries only at their annual Great American Beer Festival. However, the backlash (and support!) on social media and elsewhere shows there is more to consider than just the questionable visuals of the logo itself.

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Homebrewers Vote, We Listen: Zymurgy’s “Best Beer” and National Trends

Pliny the Elder’s reign is over. Since 2009, the beloved double IPA has sat atop the annual “best beer” poll held by Zymurgy magazine, but no longer.

Over that same period of time, Bell’s Two Hearted has been Pliny’s #2. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride? No more.

The magazine of the American Homebrewers Association released this week its new rankings as voted on by AHA members, who were able to choose up to 20 of their favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States through an online voting system. The flip-flop of Pliny the Elder and Two Hearted isn’t the only thing worth paying attention to, however.

Per annual tradition, let’s take a walk through the results.

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Malt Liquor’s One-Off Return to ‘High Class’ Status

This week, Founders announced the arrival of a new beer in their barrel-aged series, DKML. A rather innocuous announcement, as these things happen all the time. There are entire websites dedicated to beer releases, after all. But from a historical perspective, it was a little different. DKML stands for – if internet circles are to be believed – Dick Kicker Malt Liquor.

For $12 a 750 mL bottle or $15 a four-pack, this latest offering provides an on-the-nose joke to its buyers not originating from the first half of its name, but its second.

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Beer is Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder

Since 2009, Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing has been producing Maiden the Shade, a “summer IPA” created to help celebrate an annual fair.

It recently received a new look, bringing it to my attention for the first time, thanks to East Coast selection bias and that peskiness of distribution. I can say nothing for the beer, having never had it, but the forethought of that brand sure caught my attention. In recent years, the prescience of the Pacific Northwest in regard to beer and love of all things hop seems like a future that had long been planned, but perhaps America’s love affair with IPA wasn’t always a guaranteed thing.

Either way, the idea of a “summer IPA” sounds pretty damned smart right about now.

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AB InBev is Coming for All Your Hops, Unless They Aren’t

If it’s not Wicked Weed, it’s something else, I suppose.

On the heels of a loud and wide outcry from industry professionals and drinkers over the purchase of Wicked Weed by AB InBev, the global conglomerate has offered another reason to pile on. Today, it was noted that AB InBev, post-merger with SABMiller, will use South Africa’s SAB Hop Farms with the goal, according to this memo, “to sell the hops internally to their acquired (former) craft breweries, even though they have not been able to sell all the hops as of yet.” To be clear, it seems this amount of hops is 20 metric tons, or roughly 44,100 pounds.

To put that in comparison, the US grew a reported 89 million pounds of hops in 2016.

But let’s go a step further. If I’m translating numbers correctly, the International Hop Growers Convention estimated the *entire* South African hop crop at 1.9 million pounds in 2016. It is projected to drop to 1.56 million pounds in 2017. There are 1,047 acres of hops expected to be harvested in South Africa this year, or a stone’s throw away than the acreage of *only* Cascade grown *just* in Oregon in 2016.

92% of all South African hops are set to be of the alpha variety, which we know is not as popular at the moment in the U.S., where aromatic and fruity hops reign supreme.

Is it unfortunate that American brewers won’t be able to get aroma hops like Southern Passion from South Africa or alpha hops like Southern Star? Sure. But these are varieties to play with, not with which you build a portfolio of brands.

Spoiler alert: those would be Citra, Amarillo, Mosaic and Simcoe.

The loss of South African hops is taking away a portion of the sandbox in which U.S. brewers play, but they can also log onto the Lupulin Exchange at any time to find a variety of hops for which they don’t have via contract. For further context, in a release, Willy Buholzer, global hops procurement director for AB InBev noted:

More than 90 percent of our South African-grown hops will be used in local brands Castle Lager and Castle Lite, beers we’ve committed to brewing with locally-grown ingredients. In support of the local industry, we additionally sell hops to South African craft breweries. This means that less than five percent can be allocated to other Anheuser-Busch InBev breweries outside of South Africa.

This comment carries extra weight when you consider the hoops AB InBev was forced to jump through by the South African government in order to gain approval for its merger with SAB Miller, which included a $69 million (U.S.) rand fund to support the local beer-making industry and supply chains in the country.

Yes, there is a story here in terms of new market fluctuations, but if you’re curious about the future of hop growth (and scarcity?) may I recommend giving a follow to the man who literally wrote the book on them (and his new newsletter) or poke through this collection of stories from last September.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac