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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Do You Want Politics in Your Beer?

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This past weekend was a momentous one for the United States, signaling literal and figurative change throughout our government, prompting a variety of actions and reactions from passionate Americans across the political spectrum.

The presidency of Donald Trump has emboldened and impassioned all sorts, including those in beer.

Over the past year, I’ve written several times about the idea of “authenticity,” culminating in a recent post examining the role it plays in our perception of beer quality. A collection of research was shared in that piece, including the psychological connection between drinker and brewery.

Which poses an interesting question for those in the beer business: is it a good idea to go political?

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Making Snowflakes: An Exploration into Rarity, Beer Quality and Industry Authenticity

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We find ourselves in a unique time as beer lovers. Everything and anything is available to us. Whatever we want, whenever we want it.

With a record number of breweries nationwide, more than 5,000 businesses are creating a vast array of styles and flavor experiences, often nearby where we live. According to the Brewers Association, roughly three-quarters of drinking-age adults in the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery.

The flip side of this freedom of choice is the natural competition that comes with it. Keeping an IPA on tap is important to satiate American drinkers’ love for all things lupulin, but today’s brewery faces challenges presented by all the other entrants into the industry, roughly two a day. Finding a niche, or, at least, creating one, is a pivotal part of the business, whether it’s as a brewery as a whole or simply providing novel experiences every time someone walks through taproom doors.

Increasingly, the process of creating something “rare” is playing a larger role for brewers. This could be a celebrated one-off beer with limited quantities or a dedicated tap on-location that serves creations never to leave the premises. As businesses grow, evolve and consider how best to position themselves, the use of rarity in all its varieties has potential to impact breweries, industry tastemakers and drinkers.

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How to Win ‘Best’ Beer and Influence People

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Along with all the data parsed from my recent analysis of 2016’s best beer, there was one particular trend that caught my eye.

Beyond the use of specific hops and the never-ending stronghold IPAs have on our collective consciousness, more than ever before, I noticed that some of the beers deemed “best” by amateurs and experts alike were also products I would never get to try, let alone see with my own eyes in real life.

This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
  2. As more breweries grow and diversify, the potential to include barrel programs and make beers unique to each business also goes up.

But those aspects may not tell the full story. Of the 155 beers I collected for my 2016 best beer analysis, 75 (by my own subjective review) would likely be classified as “rare” for the sake of release and quantity, and an additional 20 would be “rare” based on the need to travel to the brewery or an area directly nearby to actually get the beer. By my own account, 61% of the “best” new beers released in 2016 and included on my collective list aren’t going to be available to nearly all beer drinkers – even card-carrying beer geeks such as myself that might try harder to find certain brands.

Which made me wonder. First, what are rare beers doing to us? Second, is this a paradigm shift that will continue to influence our expectations going forward?

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A ‘Definitive’ Guide to the Best Beer of 2016

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Ask friends and family. Look around the Internet. Talk to a stranger on the street. It seems just about everyone is over 2016.

But it wasn’t all bad, right? We drank some good beer.

With start of a new year, it’s time to reflect on the great ales and lagers we enjoyed in 2016. Just kidding. It’s only IPAs and imperial stouts.

What has become an annual tradition, I’ve compiled a collection of “best” American beer lists as a way to better determine some ground breaking brands found across the country. For all the subjectivity that goes into creating lists to rank our favorite movies, TV shows and more, I try to find some objective consensus to provide a clearer view of what pleased the palate of drinkers.

To do this, I found a collection of 15 “best beer” lists from a variety of sources, from social media to prominent magazines. Criteria for selection was simple: a list had to focus on 2016 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward a wide geographic representation.

That left me with 155 total beers to analyze with several clearly separating themselves as 2016’s best.

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Trend Watching: 2016 Hop Production and the Rise of Citra

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What better kind of “end of year” review than one related to hops, the national treasure of our beer loving country?

Another annual report was released this week, this time from the USDA, providing updated statistics that further show glimpses into our ongoing love affair with whatever will give our IPAs that “juicy” flavor everyone is seeking these days. While last year’s darling might have been Mosaic, there’s no question who the belle of the ball is this time around.

2016 appears to be Citra’s year.

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How to Sell Beer in 2017

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It’s a tough time to be a “big” brewer.

AB InBev and MillerCoors continue to watch as flagship brands slowly decline in sales, but some legacy craft breweries are suffering as well. Sales of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (2.8 percent) and Torpedo IPA (2.3 percent) are down. Sam Adams continues to face a free fall for Boston Lager, declining nearly 12 percent in 2016.

Diagnosing the problem points to a host of symptoms, from longtime brands going stale among consumers who always want something new to the rise in importance of what’s “local.”

“If [consumers] have two [beers] they feel are equal, and one’s local and one’s not local, that’s an important part to the decision for two-thirds of craft purchasers,” Brewers Association economist Bart Watson recently mentioned at a Brewbound Session in San Diego.

So what are these Big Boys of beer to do? Follow the lead of their smaller, more nimble competition.

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Addressing Diversity in Beer: Seeking Action

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Note: This is a follow up to my Q&A with the Brewers Association’s Julia Herz.

Over the weekend, I listened to the latest Good Beer Hunting podcast with members of Indianapolis’ Central State Brewing. Among the variety of topics covered by host Michael Kiser was a lengthy discussion of the business’ commitment to social issues of equality and diversity. The Central State crew spoke with earnest about their interest in LGBT issues and Indiana’s political climate.

On Tuesday, I saw a brewery with a beer named “Date Grape.”

This contrast is not just the push-pull of today’s beer industry, but American culture as well. It’s easy to find wonderful examples of people, businesses and institutions doing what’s right for the advancement of human beings. Then you turn around and that 180 feels like more than a metaphor when you see downright ignorant acts.

The inappropriate beer name wound up being a sad mistake by Mobcraft, a crowd-sourced brewery that neglected to vet the names of beers submitted by fans, something that will now be corrected. Whoever the person may be who shared it was sadly “inspired” to make an ingredient-based pun out of “date rape.”

Even though the correction is welcomed, the incident still speaks to the larger problem of sexism and inclusion that hovers over the beer industry and beyond. The sheer fact that someone thought they were being smart and clever with such a wildly inappropriate name says a lot.

Then again, we are only 14 years separated from the “Sex for Sam” contest, which either seems like a lifetime ago or eerily relatable when we navel-gaze at the communities around us and what efforts in equality continue take place, in beer or otherwise.

There are real, tangible things happening on a regular basis that subvert what so many in beer try to champion: diversity and inclusion. In turn, we should start requesting real, tangible actions.

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Addressing Diversity in Beer: A Q&A with Julia Herz

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In May, while attending the Craft Brewers Conference, I was able to ask members of the Brewers Association administration about the organization’s efforts to address issues related to diversity and inclusion.

Following their responses, I wrote this piece, pointing out the rapidly shifting conversation about gender and race and why the BA should take the opportunity to be a leader in the effort. It was recognized by the North American Guild of Beer Writers with an honorable mention award for “Best Beer Commentary or Criticism.”

In the months since, Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, brainstormed and wrote the column, “Embracing Diversity in the Beer Biz,” pointing out what the BA currently knows, what it wants to know and what it’ll do in the coming year and beyond to better support and promote diversity in its many forms.

As a follow up to the coverage on this blog, I recently spoke to Julia Herz about her column and what she hopes it’ll do to advance efforts by the Brewers Association.

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Will Legal Marijuana Impact Beer Sales?

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“Beer is art”

It’s something you’ve likely heard at some point in time. If you’re like me, there’s even a good chance that sipping on an otherworldly creation from malt and hops has made you feel that way.

But beer is also just beer.

Sometimes, it’s something to be savored. Sometimes, it’s the means to a relaxed end. In that regard, it’s only one of many ways to catch a buzz. For some states, however, the threat of what wine and spirits steal from beer may also be padded by legalized marijuana.

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