About Bryan Roth

Beer enthusiast and homebrewer.

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

Drinkers Already Think Sam Adams Isn’t ‘Craft.’ What If It Won’t Be for Long?

A week from today, leadership overseeing the Boston Beer suite of brands – most notably Samuel Adams beer – will present their Q1 earnings report. If recent hints by founder Jim Koch are any indication, there’s reason to suspect (conspiratorially or not) that it may not be all sunshine and roses.

The last few years have been tough for Boston Beer. Declining interest across a variety of brands accounted for a 7% drop in dollar sales for the Sam Adams portfolio in 2016, sentiment that has only continued into this year.

Through nearly the first quarter of 2017, Boston Lager dollar sales dropped around 8% compared to the same timeframe last year. Rebel, the IPA that was supposed to reinvigorate interest in the brand, got remade to start this year. It’s down 20% in dollar sales so far in grocery, convenience and other bread-and-butter stores for the company.

I, like many others, see Sam Adams as the brand that launched a lifetime of beer geekdom. But things are changing rapidly for the company. For longtime devotees, it’s not much for better as it is worse.

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Saison isn’t the ‘Next IPA,’ but it’s Trending in the Right Direction

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Today is April 8, Saison Day, a fake holiday created for the beer community because if Hallmark can pull it off why can’t we?

I often poke fun of such occasions on Twitter, but with consideration, perhaps today *is* a good time to recognize the style, full of life in its effervescence and yeast-driven flavor. In many ways, saison is an ideal beer for where we currently find the American beer industry. Its malleability presents brewers with plenty of ways to approach its final product, creating something as simple and refreshing as a table beer or as hoppy as our beloved IPAs.

Which is why, in terms of “trends,” saison may be a fun one to watch.

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Here’s a Fun Way to Increase ‘Craft’ Beer’s Market Share

This morning, Good Beer Hunting published a Sightlines piece I wrote examining the essential forfeiture of the Brewers Association’s goal of 20 percent market share by 2020.

At the end of 2016, BA-defined market share stood at 12.3 percent. Nothing to scoff at, considering how the industry continued to grow last year. But the truth of the matter is the goal of “20 by 20” is based on a self-prescribed definition of what “craft” is and isn’t. So I was intrigued by this question I got after the story went live:

What was once an idea of gaining 20 percent market share – something actually written into the organization’s mission statement in 2014 – has now more or less faded into the stark contrast of a reality where merger and acquisition activity can easily strip millions of barrels away from “craft” defined beer.

But instead of adhering to the artificial placement of the word “craft,” what if we rearranged what is allowed to be included in this equation? Is the goal of 20 percent then attainable?

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Silence and Secrets Have No Place Here

Anonymous sources are not unusual. In many cases, they are vital.

The contacts made by journalists, and the information they provide, are often pivotal for the success of the Fourth Estate. While Deep Throat is among our country’s most famous examples, there are daily reminders in all forms of media of men and women who circumvent risks and obligations to provide insight into the world around us we may not see, or share personal stories that can be too threatening to safety and well being.

But in some rare instances, anonymity is provided as a favor. The stakes aren’t as great and, under deadline or perceived necessity, names are retracted to appease. Maybe a story doesn’t seem as complete. Generally, this practice is frowned upon.

Among the many reasons why someone’s name needs to stay secret, the threshold was apparently crossed recently when an employee at Indiana’s Route 2 Brews didn’t feel comfortable talking on the record about overtly sexist branding created by the business.

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The Search for Authenticity: A Questionable Manifesto

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You familiar with Panera Bread or Five Guys? Ever visit a food truck? Each kind of business represents a part of the fastest-growing segment of the dining industry, known as “fast-casual.”

The premise is simple: a step above “traditional,” expected fast-food, but not the kind of sit-down experience you receive at restaurants. No servers. Relatively little fuss. In essence, it’s a way to create a more direct connection between customer and choice, even if that literally means taking out a middleman to put you and the creator of your food face-to-face.

What’s worth noticing about the increased attention and interest of this format of consumption is how it can also be part of broader social trends. It’s an extension of what the past decade has offered entrepreneurs and consumers in the wake of the Great Recession. New ways to approach how we give and receive goods and services.

The rise of fast-casual may not be unique to the 21st century, but it’s prominence in our preferences – creating gastro-social bonds we thought lost in the gluttony of early aughts dining – showcases a new awareness of who we want to be as eaters and drinkers. In phases of our lives, we’re searching for stronger connections to what’s around us, all the while inching ourselves back to avoid the harm that comes from too much personal investment. Get what you want, feel it’s coming from a trustworthy source, and complete the transaction.

Is it a behavior influenced by our experience of financial turmoil just years ago? Is it due to our changing relationships in the real and digital world? Whatever the reason, at least the common thread weaving these and other possible answers together is that as human beings, we’re trying to find ways to make connections.

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What If You Don’t Have to Make ‘Good’ Beer Anymore?

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Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.

“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.

In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.

But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.

So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.

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