The Tap House

When it comes to craft beer, it is easy to get lost in the nitty gritty of the industry focusing on BJCP guidelines, craft vs. macro, or ratings, among myriad things. Today I wanted to touch upon a critical partner to breweries- the taphouse (or tap house, as you prefer). Taphouses have grown in popularity (and I would argue necessity) in recent years, paralleling the growth of the craft industry state by state.

Every brewery wants to build their brand. Many include taprooms for interested consumers to sample their brews, and then take a tour of the plant. Brand building does not stop there however, and must extend into the retail sales side of things whether a bottle shop or bar. Breweries without a taproom need to reach the public, and concentrate heartily on this end of the system. The taphouse is a unique and ideal place for both. Why a taphouse over a typical bar? It stands as a beacon to craft beer lovers that fresh (usually) craft beer, often including a wide variety of local offerings is waiting for them. Most taphouses also provide smaller pours, and wee samples of craft offerings for consumers to enjoy a variety of tempting palate pleasers in one sitting without having to order five 16 oz pours. This is a gift to craft beer patrons, as it broadens their experience, exposing them to a multitude of breweries for later purchases. This helps build brands for the breweries. We have all seen and heard about the pint nights at bars, restaurants, etc to raise awareness of a brand, a new release, or a collaboration. That too is a critical component to brand recognition. I would suggest however that following up with placement at a taphouse foments that recognition, and later purchases. Why?

Taphouses know quality craft beer. They understand the import of clean lines, fresh beer, and partnership with the breweries. The beertenders hired are experts (although most are not certified Cicerones, they can elucidate the qualities of every beer on tap). They also are particular about the beers they serve, inviting confidence from their patrons. It is this relationship and venue that is ideal for breweries. Maryland boasts quite a few taphouses, and I am delighted to say they are exceptional. Max’s Taphouse (Baltimore), Baltimore Taphouse, Frisco’s Tap House (Columbia & Gambrills), JoJo’s Tap House (Frederick), Severna Park Taphouse, are only a handful, and the list goes on. Building a brand means not only crafting quality, but building relationships, and ultimately partners. The taphouse provides that willing partner, and becomes a catalyst toward recognition and success.

For many travelling craft lovers, the first place they seek out is a taphouse. That is where they expect to find the best of the local offerings, and a knowledgeable staff to inform them about the breweries behind the beers they sample. That often prompts a visit to the brewery, or at least a retail purchase in the future. It is much the same in Maryland. Maryland is rapidly becoming a beer destination. Taphouses are often a starting point, and from there a trip to brewery is next, or in some cases it is the reverse, sending thirsty travelers from brewery to taphouse and on to the next brewery. It is symbiotic and everyone making good beer, or selling it in their taphouse, or consuming it benefits from the partnership.

It is here that I would like to recognize one taphouse owner specifically. Baltimore Taphouse in Canton has become a mainstay in the city. Every craft beer lover in the region has frequented it at one time or another (or daily). That is entirely due to one man- John Bates. It was his vision, his passion for craft that motivated him to open Baltimore Taphouse. His dreams were realized, through his relationships with breweries, his community, and every patron that passed through his doors. Any person that met him appreciated his kind and passionate soul and his love of quality malted beverages. Sadly,  Mr. Bates passed away on July 22 of this year. His legacy lives on through his wife Kristen, and the incredible business he built. Raise a glass in honor of Mr. Bates, a good soul who loved craft beer, and helped us all to love it even more.

To find out more about John Bates:
Yours For Good Fermentalbes
Baltimore Beer Baron

Flying Dog and the 1st Amendment

Flying Dog recently made public their decision to no longer retain membership in the Brewer’s Association of America as of June 1, 2017. What was behind this decision? The 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states,

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”

Terrific! I love America and the right to free speech, even when I don’t particularly care for the words that are sometimes spoken! That is how the 1st Amendment works. As citizens, we are all entitled to freedom of speech, agree or disagree. What does that have to do with craft beer? In a nutshell-marketing and labels. The Brewer’s Association of America in April, 2017 informed craft brewery members they were instituting a new Marketing and Advertising Code. On the surface, the code appears merely as a reminder that breweries need to advertise responsibly and follow the traditional path of making sure they DO NOT PROMOTE in their advertising:

• excess drinking
• underage drinking
• drinking and driving
• illegal activity and drinking
• bad or irresponsible behavior and drinking
• claims that beer can solve all of your problems (social, mental, professional, or otherwise)

If we stopped here, this code seems innocuous enough mostly backing up federal law, and something all craft breweries would like to get on board with- acting responsibly towards the consumers that support them. The code does not stop there however and goes on to prevent breweries from advertising which:

• contains sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public;
• contains derogatory or demeaning text or images.

This is where it starts to get a little murky when taking the 1st Amendment into consideration. There is an assumption here regarding reasonable adult individuals finding advertising appropriate or not. Don’t get me wrong- I understand that there is a section of every magazine rack that is required to shield young eyes from the cover and contents because they are not legally old enough to view those rags; much like the rating system for movies- like NC 17. This is fine as the law has been established to guide us (where children are concerned) as to what is appropriate. This doesn’t hold water when it comes to craft beer, an adult product.

It is easy to gather a group of ‘reasonable’ adult consumers together to determine what they find appropriate (or not) with regard to beer advertising/labels. Statistically they would probably be divided on many of the labels level of ‘appropriate’. That is because ‘reasonable’ and ‘appropriate’ can be extremely subjective in advertising. We have all heard the marketing mantra sex sells. Well according to the BA, sex, among other things would not be allowed as a sales tool any longer, if reasonable adults found it inappropriate.

This is where Caruso doesn’t budge, and views the new code as a form of as censorship, and critically a Constitutional violation. It has the potential to limit speech, freedom of expression, and advertising based on ideas and requirements that are entirely subjective. The supposed creation of objectivity in this code appears in the Advertising Complaint Review Panel. This three member panel would interject themselves if the brewery did not respond in a ‘satisfactory’ way to an advertising complaint. I am not completely clear on this eradicating subjectivity. How are they defining satisfactory?

A free market economy allows consumers to decide what they will and will not purchase/consume. The quality of the beer should be the determining factor. To get consumers in the door to sample quality beer, breweries advertise. In a crowded craft beer market, a unique or even controversial marketing campaign may set a brewery apart, luring or deterring potential customers. If a consumer doesn’t care for a marketing campaign, like the Swedish Bikini Team for example, they can choose to go elsewhere to spend hard earned dollars. Shouldn’t that be the determining factor? Caruso thinks so, and the 1st Amendment backs him up.

The counterpoint to this is that the Brewer’s Association is trying to hold their members to a higher standard than the ‘Swedish Bikini Team’, or mudslinging among competing breweries (another part of the ‘code’ prohibits defamation toward competing breweries). For that they should be lauded. These standards however (some of them) might be better off self-imposed as opposed to dictated when they violate the foundational documents of our nation. Why? Once you begin to make exceptions to the 1st Amendment, it will become easier to chip away at those core rights granted to us by our founding fathers; rights many died for, and continue to sacrifice for today.

In the end it may be much ado about nothing, and perhaps an overreaction. All breweries may in fact continue to operate as they have, with no actual infringement upon their rights to advertise as they see fit. Time will tell. Jim Caruso and Flying Dog won’t take that chance.
Cin Cin!

Inspire, Incite, Revile- What’s in a name? What’s in a campaign?

This week social media was aflutter reacting to a new Czech Beer Aurosa. When I hear ‘Czech beer’ the first thing that comes to mind is a traditional, exquisite Czechoslovakian Pilsener. That however is not quite what Aurosa is. The backlash has been tremendous. Why? Perhaps less due to the name, or even style of the brew than the campaign.

One visit to the web page immediately lets the visitor know that Aurosa is a sophisticated and elegant premium beer representing a collaboration of art (as witnessed in the marble like design of the bottle) and the craftsmanship of the brewer that breaks stereotypes and benefits local small artists. Wow! On the surface this seems just fine, as most craft beer folks enjoy supporting local businesses and artists. As one navigates the site, things take an intriguing turn, one that is potentially fraught with deeper meaning, and that is what has the craft beer twitterverse quite agitated.

Aurosa is advertised as a beer crafted specifically for a woman, embracing (and copyrighting) the tagline, “First Beer for Her”, #Beerforher. I am a woman. Do I need a beer brewed specifically just for me??? Hmmm….  On the website I am informed that this beer represents the tenderness of a young lady, and the strength and perseverance of women that succeed in any venue, whilst never sacrificing femininity. Lofty ideals for a beer. As expected the response was a range of rants mostly along the lines of ‘women drink the same beer as men’, which is absolutely true. Other (not unexpected) interpretations of what the name actually means (no it isn’t sexual) were also floating about. I am not the first to take up the conversation of women and beer marketing. Morgan Childs wrote a lovely expose on this topic a few months ago addressing statistics, women, styles, and preferences where she briefly touched upon the controversial Aurosa brand.

It is easy to be gender-offended but I wanted to dig a bit more and think it through before determining my emotional vs. logical response to this new (?) beer- which has technically been around since November of 2015. The first thing I discovered was that this beer might in fact be quite pleasant. A strong, unfiltered, semi-dark (Vienna malt) lager, if well-made is quite appealing. I am always willing to try a new beer- the stumbling block in this case isn’t the beer, but the campaign that reviles so many. The most significant factor to me however is the brewer/founder, Martina Smirova. Yes, a woman who happens to have three Master’s Degrees- all centered on business and marketing. This was her idea, her dream fulfilled, working in collaboration with other women also trying to make their artistic goals a reality. Without an interview, which I am currently trying to secure, I must surmise her true objective based on my research of Ms. Smirova. Considering her resume and business partnerships with various (female) artists, I honestly don’t see malintent. There appears to be no femme fatale, or a misogynistic angle here at all. I see a businesswoman trying to find her niche in the industry.

Czecholslovakia (now The Czech Republic) has a long history of strong, smart, independent women like Vera Laska, the famed resistance fighter that once topped Hitler’s most wanted list. That hasn’t changed. Based on what little I know of Ms. Smirova, I would glean that she is very capable, quite independent, and clearly intelligent. After all, no publicity is bad publicity now is it? Good or bad, Aurosa is the topic of conversation, now garnering very strong name recognition. Perhaps this was her strategy all along?
Na zdraví

Room for more breweries?

Looking at the growth of craft breweries in the United States over the past decade, many have pondered if there perhaps are too many breweries these days. Noticeably the question took on more significance once the number of craft breweries eclipsed 5,000 in 2016. Blasphemy or Truth? Reality dictates it is based on upon factors within each state of the union. One thing I love about the Brewers Association of America is their willingness to keep such detailed statistics. This is particularly relevant when it comes to determining the answer to such questions as how many is too many?

According to BA 2016 data, Maryland has not reached saturation yet at 65 breweries. How do they know? Taking the overall craft beer production, barrels sold, population, and economic impact (just under $652 million for 2016) they created an algorithm to determine where each state ranks and when they near the tipping point of saturation. Currently Maryland ranks 36th in the nation with 1.5 breweries per capita. Based on our population each adult in Maryland consumes approximately 2 gallons of beer per year (raising us to 25th overall!) So what does this tell us? We have far fewer breweries than most states, but we drink a lot more craft beer per person. It also means we have room for growth. Vermont does not have room for growth ranking 1st at 10.8 breweries per capita (100,000) and they have a noticeably smaller economic impact than Maryland at $271 million. Vermont has reached saturation, and other states like Colorado are not far behind.

Even with all of this room for growth in Maryland, which is rapidly marking her place as a premier beer tourist destination, there are still more than 65 breweries (2016 numbers)and counting.  How does a brewery in Maryland stake a claim as relevant, worth a drive,  or investment in a six pack? What value can a new brewery add to those already established? It is fairly  simple really. The priority focus of  a new brewery should be to make certain they are producing a quality brew. There is no longer room for errors in the market as consumers are less forgiving, and more willing to drive to the brewery down the street if they feel a product isn’t well crafted. Beyond quality how does a brewery set itself apart? This is where it gets tricky. I am always the first person to state that every palate is different and what one person loves another will find no affection for leaving the field wide open when it comes to flavor and style.

Many breweries try to make their mark via the name- attempting to make it synonymous with the state, or a particular city, or sports team, or important person. When the field begins to get crowded these catchy names may become irrelevant and lost in the mix forcing breweries to find something else to set them above. A niche perhaps? Indeed. There is so much that has changed in the industry since brewing first began in the colonies and even more so since Repeal of Prohibition. Hop varieties have multiplied, offering innumerable possibilities for creative (sometimes adventurous) brewers willing to try something new. Most recently exciting news has come out of Britain that a new strain of yeast has been discovered specifically for lager beer. This offers the possibility of more variety for craft lagers. Another opportunity for brewers is stretching beyond strict BJCP style guidelines as many American brewers have been known to do. Additives are bit tricky, even if one does not want to stay within the guidelines. One of the defining features of craft used to mean no adjuncts (or technically fewer than macro) and specifically corn was targeted as a no-go for craft. Things have changed. One example is a curiously crafted popcorn beer created by a brewery down south- that is thinking outside of the box! A consumer would be hard pressed to find this anyplace else.

Perhaps the ‘niche’ is reversing the trend and going back to what reawakened a love of beer- the historic brews that got us drinking once again. Stillwater Artisanal created a post- Prohibition lager, Premium that relied upon corn and rice adjuncts to mimic the style of the time. Many breweries have seized upon historic beers as a distinctive focal point and the results are often quite delicious- bringing thirsty patrons back for more. The bottom line for new breweries is that there is room for growth in Maryland if they start with quality brews (regardless of the styles they make) it is the first step to longevity and recognition. Beyond that anything is possible in this rapidly expanding industry. It can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

Prost!

Independent Craft Breweries vs Macro: It has all been done before…

Today it’s time to take up the macro vs independent craft brewery conversation. Much has been made for quite some time about AB InBev buying up many of the craft breweries and now buying Miller Coors (without a peep from the government despite its likely violation of the anti-trust laws). For years I have heard from the old Anhauser Busch, Miller, Coors, and Heineken salesmen that the macro breweries will always reign supreme and the craft beer market will not see much in the way of growth (I also heard from those same men there was no place for women in the beer industry- but that is a tale for another day.) Let’s begin by noting how much market share craft beer (despite the most recent slip in numbers) has gained, while macro breweries like AB InBev have started to lose. As of March, 2017 there are 5,301 independent craft breweries in America that have seized 12.3% of the volume share (up from a mere 5.7% in 2011.) That is a major gain, while the macro breweries may look at 7 % and thinking that isn’t much, but it is certainly not what they anticipated and cuts into their profits. Craft retail dollar share is up to almost 22 % – a 10% increase in only a year and that is noticeable. Big beer is fighting back.

Now many people will look at the numbers and ask why bother caring because the macro breweries don’t care about what craft beer is doing since the percentages are so small. I will argue they do. If AB InBev didn’t care about the growth of craft breweries cutting into the market why try so vigorously to purchase the successful craft breweries? Why spend millions of advertising dollars on campaigns proclaiming AB InBev to be one and the same as craft? Why purchase a stake in Ratebeer where many go to seek reliable ratings on craft beers? And most recently why bother to spend time and money downplaying the Brewer’s Association of America’s latest move to signify ‘certified independent’ craft breweries with a special label? What does the label mean? More than 25% of a certified independent craft brewery cannot be owned by any other entity, and it must produce less than 6,000,000 (million) barrels per annum.

Much has been made lately of the new label and how “divisive” it is. Really? Technically that is the appropriate term as it divides the beer into separate classification from macro to independent craft. I however prefer to think of it as a line of demarcation for those of us that care whether or not or beer is locally produced, sourced, employed, and crafted. Some beer drinkers (yes even craft beer drinkers) will not care. I do, as do many that prefer to know where their (nourishment) beer is coming from. It foments economic growth within communities at every end of the spectrum from agriculture to community gardens, to increased retail and food sales in neighborhoods where breweries are located. Is the ‘certified independent’ label really that different from a terroir designation on a bottle of Pinot Noir? Or an ‘organic’ label on your produce? Well many have taken pen to paper (or keyboard to internet) to argue the needless futility of the designation, and just as many have hit back challenging that those that prefer to do away with the ‘divisive’ label are predominantly macro brewery stakeholders. Jacqeuline Dheere was just one in a long line of beer writers to point this out. The battle lingers on with no signs of abating.

Curiously, all of this has happened once before, a little over a century ago. Just before the turn of the 20th century a war raged between macro breweries and independent local craft brewers. It started with a British brewing consortium buying up the top breweries in each city as an attempt to recoup financial losses from the former colonies and their now thriving breweries. Next it was a local trust- the Maryland Brewing Company that purchased the top breweries in the beer capital of Maryland- Baltimore in 1899. That failed and was replaced by yet another monopoly (with better management) G.B.S. Locals were deeply concerned by this and lacked any understanding of why their favorite breweries would sell out. Well the answer then as today was a great payoff for all their hard work! That is the American dream isn’t it? The rise of the monopolies also created at times, a vitriolic and divisive atmosphere for both the consumers and the breweries. Many breweries added ‘independent’ to their names just to make it easier to identify that they were not sell outs, and could be relied upon to continue producing that same favorite regional beer. Among brewing families, a sort of dystopian nightmare ensued where family members that wanted to remain independent disowned those that sold out, some even engaged in legal battles over the sales and the family fortunes.

So how did it all shake out? Prohibition shut them all down in 1920. Today I have no inkling that America would ever attempt to recreate that failed experiment, although I have been wrong before. I honestly don’t know what will happen. What I do know is that people will act based upon what is important to them. Perhaps they will look beyond the tasty malted beverages on their lips, and see talented local craftspeople investing their own neighborhoods, bringing jobs, building trust and fomenting communities. Beer for thought.
Cheers!

The Revolutionary War

Today is the 4th of July. It has been 241 years since America declared its independence from the tyranny of the English monarch George III and his Parliament. The picture included is from the  Department of Veterans Affairs listing what rations soldiers from the Flying Camp were entitled to each day. The Flying Camp was formed in June of 1776 by General George Washington and was made up of soldiers from Maryland (3400), Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (totaling 10,000). They were placed under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. The mission of the Flying Camp was to protect the Mid-Atlantic coastline from the British and the secure the supply chain of the Continental Army.

This was a critical mission indeed as many soldiers enlisted for the daily rations they were promised once enlisted. The most important ration to many was the quart of Spruce beer (made from actual shed spruce) that each soldier would receive every single day. Protecting the supply chain meant the beer rations would reach the soldiers, sustaining morale in the oft perilous conditions they faced on and off of the battlefield. America may have been prepared in spirit for the War but we were ill equipped to fight it; short on uniforms fit for combat, boots that gave out in a day’s march, lack of weapons and ammunition, and little to no formal training for most enlisted men. The beer ration motivated men on to continue the fight despite the grave circumstances. A little help from France and Germany (with both training and supplies) eventually helped push us over the top (along with a fierce and successful siege of Yorktown) to victory and the establishment of America as an independent Nation!

As you celebrate today with your BBQ and fireworks take a moment and raise a toast to those that had the foresight to fight for our what could be- the United States of America. Oh and if you get a chance- make it a Spruce Beer in honor of the Flying Camp soldiers that kept the rations flowing to those brave men that sacrificed themselves for our freedoms!

Hysteria Brewing/Lost Ark Distilling

Saturday I had the pleasure of attending Hysteria Brewing’s grand opening. It was well attended and quite well organized. The taproom exuded the industrial chic quality embracing many modern brewery taprooms, but with a more nuanced and individual character complete with small library, movie theatre-esque curtained big screen, and a photo-op bench. The bar was packed, along with the tables as the Hysteria staff poured as quickly as they could to meet the demand. The initial offerings were limited to three:

  1. Trash Panda, an American IPA,  7.2%
  2. Yellow Sudmarine, a Hefeweizen, 5.3%
  3. Mo’saic Mo’problems, a session IPA, 4.6%

As I have stated often, everyone’s palate is different, and many that were not mosaic hop fans gravitated to the citrusy, bold Trash Panda. Others, looking for lower alcohol IPA with strong mosaic notes and slight malt undertones enjoyed the session IPA. Other palate pleasing offerings are sure to come (including a much touted milk stout) as the brewery continues to negotiate the opening days. For those that cannot make the journey to Columbia- fear not as Hysteria will be distributing via delivery truck to your favorite watering hole and retail shop.

Regardless of the beer preference, the crowd enjoyed the artic air within the taproom and the array of outdoor tables and tents set up in the parking lot. As mentioned in my previous post, it was a marketing win for Hysteria and for Lost Ark. The Distillery benefited from Hysteria’s grand opening, sharing the cordoned off parking lot,  food truck, corn hole, and most importantly consumers. Many sampling at Hysteria were later discovered at Lost Ark taking advantage of the delightful cocktail samplers (made with Lost Ark Rums)  the taproom was (now) legally offering. The scene did not quite harken back to a pre-Prohibition biergarten, but it was reminiscent of the purpose- to offer enough enticements for consumers to bring the family and spend the day (and their money).  Some even brought picnic blankets (along with the wee ones and quadrupeds) for the shaded grassy areas- although scant. It appeared that even the jiu jitsu studio lost a few parents to the taproom offerings. Who knows, maybe the studio might end up with a few more families signing up for lessons due to the opportune proximity to hand crafted Maryland beverages! It is a win for everyone, and a modern business model to watch.

Cheers!