This post is in response to a prompt provided to me by a fellow San Diego Beer Blogger, Bill Vanderburgh, who writes for craftbeerinsandiego.com.
I have been traveling for fun and for visiting breweries for over four years. This raises the question of what value there is to doing so, besides making it easier for others to decide where to go when visiting the same city. I find tremendous value in it, which is why I still continue to travel despite not making any money from my blog.
The value of exploring breweries can be seen in a few ways. The most obvious is that by visiting the brewery directly you get to try beers you wouldn’t find elsewhere. This has little meaning if you can’t differentiate between beers or if you are happy with just any beer. So this leads to an explanation of the hardcore beer enthusiasts, whom I have befriended over the years.
All beer drinkers start their journey with a flavor they enjoyed in a beer that they want to re-live. But for some, their enjoyment is not dependent on quality, or the variations of quality are not so apparent. By becoming hyper-focused on flavors of beer, many enthusiasts take a leap further. Through this leap comes a differentiation between good, great, fantastic, and world class. Others are happy to find beer that is at least good or sometimes great and stop there. Looking back I sometimes wish I had done so to. Constantly searching for fantastic can lead to disappointment if a beer is not perfectly fresh or as flavorful as the previous batch.
However, having reached the level where I differentiate between fantastic and world class gives me an experience that I can share with enthusiasts around the world. And through this comes a passion that leads me and others to travel longer distances to visit breweries famed for being world class. As some might point out, I am not certified either as a beer judge or a cicerone. I have no formal training on what makes a beer a fantastic example of its beer style. But I speak not from education but from personal experience, an experience many drinkers can relate to.
At nearly every excellent brewery I visit, I meet people who share my passion for searching out the fantastic and the world class. These meetings often turn into in-depth conversations and occasionally friendships. Friendships often develop over a shared passion, whether for types of music, quality beer, or appreciation of nature. These shared passions help us to quickly judge the person we just met. From there, a friendship may develop further into something more personal over the course of many years.
There is a certain welcoming character to beer enthusiasts that I find quite similar to metal heads. Once that shared quality is discovered, conversation takes on a deeper meaning. But I live in San Diego where there are already many world class breweries to visit, surely I could meet beer enthusiasts in my hometown. I absolutely have. There is something different about meeting someone at De Garde, Sante Adarius, American Solera, Cantillon, Jester King, Hill Farmstead, and others that immediately triggers another level of connection. I met 5 wonderful people on my visit to Cantillon a few years ago. Of them, I have kept in touch with the three American women. All 3 of them fell in love with Cantillon’s famed apricot lambic.
You might notice a similarity in the list of breweries. They all focus on barrel-aged beers either farmhouse or inspired by the Belgian lambic tradition. This style has an inherent draw for beer enthusiasts. The beers can be aged, developing complexities over time. And in certain instances I have found specific beers of the style that my husband and mother enjoy, even though most sour beers are beyond their appreciation. I have had numerous people I had never met offer to share a bottle with me that they purchased to drink at the brewery. I have also shared many similar bottles with others, whether at the brewery or when friends come over to share some beers.
There is a tendency among the hardcore beer enthusiasts to welcome the person you just met as if you were friends with them for years. This connection to others is at the heart of what it means to be human. Some might even describe it as sharing an experience of unconditional love. I look forward to the development of these friendships over the coming years. My journey has just begun.
As craft breweries become larger, there is a temptation to grow their brands and distribute beers into all 50 states. The problem is that at a certain scale quality drops off and beers deteriorate in shipping or on the shelf. Even if the quality is still there, because the batches are so huge, it is rare to taste a beer at peak freshness.
The best example for people in the West Coast is Dogfish Head. They brew some amazing IPAs and 60 minute IPA is delightful when fresh at the source. By the time it reaches San Diego it tastes like a malty mess. The difference is night and day. Not only is it disappointing to those who know what it can taste like but it may give people the wrong impression of what the beer tastes like. I had assumed the talk of it being amazing was all hype until I visited the brewery directly.
Or consider Maui Brewing. Their West Coast style IPA is crisp and delicious at the source but once it is shipped across the ocean it loses its kick. I didn’t expect much during my recent visit but at the source their IPA was excellent. The same thing can be said for Lagunitas, Green Flash, New Belgium, Stone, and Sierra Nevada. Now that Lagunitas is owned by Heinekin, you find it on tap in bars across the country. But it is hard to keep the quality when you are brewing massive batches of IPA. The difference is also quite noticeable with Alpine beers that are now brewed in large batches at Green Flash. While they are fantastic when fresh and on tap they are brewed in such large quantities that it may sit in kegs or bottles for months after brewing.
Admittedly, some of the larger breweries are attempting to improve the quality and freshness of their beers in areas far from their home town by opening new breweries in other parts of the country. Stone, Sierra Nevada, Green Flash, New Belgium, and Ballast Point have all either opened or are in the process of opening new locations. Green Flash, Stone, and Ballast Point have opened spots in Virginia. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have opened in North Carolina. Stone also opened a brewery in Berlin, Germany. Green Flash is also opening a brewery in Nebraska. Some could say that this makes them more regional but they are still making beers in massive batches.
For a while Alpine kept things small and quantities were limited. I lamented the difficulty of finding the beers at the time and the lack of six-packs. I wondered why people regularly drove to the source to buy the beers by the case. You can now buy Alpine beer in the grocery store in six-packs but it often lacks that explosive hop kick that made it worth seeking out. A similar thing can be said for Toppling Goliath where in an effort to meet demand they started contract-brewing with a Florida brewery to distribute outside of their local Iowa market. Fans agree that it isn’t close to the stuff brewed out of the brewery in Iowa. I have yet to taste the beers myself but I will be visiting the brewery in November.
Together, these breweries teach us a lesson about the importance of focusing on your region and growing within reason while keeping the quality the same. As the craft-brew explosion continues, there is room for a lot of regional leaders in beer. But do we really need IPAs from Founders and Bells distributed to the West Coast? Does the East Coast need Green Flash, Ballast Point, and other West Coast brands? They may draw interest initially but then that interest wanes and they get lost in the sea of local options. As big breweries focus more on growth and less on quality they lose the quality that brought visitors to seek the beer out at the source.
Independence is important in many ways but ultimately large craft breweries abandon quality in their search for ever-growing profits and lose some of the spark that made craft beer exciting. As more and more breweries are bought out things will only get worse. Up-and-coming breweries should focus on serving a region and not allow the search for expanding profits to leave behind the quality beer that brought them a following in the first place. The trend of limited-release cans direct from the brewery is a good response to this, but larger breweries are so big the limited releases are just peanuts to them.
It is no surprise to see a Budweiser Commercial be a huge part of the Superbowl. They have been one of the big spenders for years. But what is surprising is their choice to shift away from the ads focused on the masses that don’t show you a single thing about beer to something that proudly trumpets their Macro beer status and mocks craft beer at the same time.
There are many things wrong with this ad, but most of all is the suggestion that craft beer drinkers only care about sipping and dissecting their beers and not about actually drinking and enjoying their beers. There are many different styles of beers, from the easy-drinking session IPAs, brown ales, and pale ales, to the more sipping-friendly double IPAs, barley wines, and imperial stouts. Though tasters are a common part of craft breweries, they exist not to promote sipping but to give beer drinkers a way to try the different types of beers available at a brewery without having to order a pint of each.
What the craft beer movement shows is not that craft beer is meant to be sipped but that there are many different types of beers available for all kinds of fans. If you want something lighter, and equivalent to Budweiser, there are plenty of delicious local Blondes, Session IPAs, and Ambers that are meant to be enjoyed all day long. If you are looking for something with a little more punch, there are plenty of West Coast style IPAs that are a bit stronger but still can be enjoyed over time.
Finally, there are the barley wines, imperial stouts, double IPAs, imperial reds, and other sorts of beers that are best enjoyed slowly either because of the rarity or the high alcohol. These beers are not fussed over, though. Instead, they are enjoyed for all the flavors they present.
The ad is also ridiculously ironic considering AB In Bev is currently on a buying spree, picking up craft breweries. Most recently this includes 10 Barrel out of Oregon and Elysian out of Seattle, Washington. For a company to simultaneously make fun of craft beers while buying up new breweries to promote it is hard to tell what the focus is. Either way, it is a sad attempt to attack the craft breweries that have been winning over the public’s appreciation lately.
UPDATE: Craft Beer response to the Budwesier ad is below. Totally nailed it.