Pumpkin Style and other Seasonal Musings

I recently read an article by Fritz Hahn (Washington Post) addressing the irritation of Pumpkin Ales and fall seasonals appearing on store shelves in summer, when few consumers show interest in drinking them. I too have often complained about this phenomenon, particularly when October hits (and I am ready to drink a fall seasonal beer) and there is nothing to be found. Hahn engaged a variety of breweries and distributors to get to the crux of the matter. The results pointed to a supply chain cast six months into the future. The concern for breweries was a lack of beer on the shelves once summer seasonals were sold out if fall offerings weren’t to arrive until September.

This debacle is absolutely comprehensible, but I seem to recall a time around a decade ago (give or take) when fall brews came out in September/October not July or August. Certainly things have changed since then, and increased competition is definitely a factor. This does not however address the issue. What is the possible solution, empty shelves? Not the best decision. In reconfiguring the brew calendar and distribution needs, fresh ideas are necessary, and as the old adage implies,

Necessity is the mother of invention. 1

It would be simple to suggest that breweries increase production of their staple or ‘flagship’ beers that are offered year round to combat empty shelf syndrome during these inter- seasonal lulls. I for one enjoy my ‘go to’ beers that I can always count upon for quality, and year round availability. I like the reliability, as the beer shelf in my refrigerator can attest to. Delicious, nutritious, comfort liquid for any occasion or season. I also appreciate the adventure of variety, seasonals, and exploring the unknown. Would it be too crazy to suggest inter-season offerings? Wait- that is already happening. A quick look at any of your local breweries at this time of year produces a cornucopia of special offerings like collaboration brews. Now this is where it gets exciting. Well planned and thought out collaborations have produced some incredible results. Many Maryland breweries have received national recognition for their outstandingly crafted mergers. The Partnership Series Olde Ale between Heavy Seas and Union Craft is just one that comes to mind among several across the region.

Not all breweries have the opportunity to collaborate, or produce quality brews when they choose to brew together. There are other options to fill the void, including an increase in their portfolio of brews. Unfortunately not all brewers can take advantage of this under current state franchise laws. One local brewery (who shall remain nameless for this article) created a tasty new brew to fill that void, but was told by their distributor that they would not even attempt to place that (quite tasty) new beer in retail establishments. They were left with no option but to keep it in their taproom. Hmmm was this competition? Or was this our fear becoming reality- that there aren’t enough distributors in Maryland for the number of craft breweries, thus allowing those remaining distributors to basically dictate to the brewers what will be sold and when?

Perhaps the ancient world has something else to offer us in the form of Archimedes, “Eureka!”2  If he could figure out a solution to his difficult mathematical dilemma, we in Maryland can discover a new approach to seasonal brews…

Beer for thought!

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1. Plato, trans. By Benjamin Jowett, The Republic (New York, Anchor, 1960).
2. Archimedes, trans. by Sir Thomas Heath, Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897).

 

What lies beneath?

Uncover what resides beneath the streets of Maryland.

The floods that ravaged Ellicott City last year unearthed an unexpected mystery- underground caves. Research conducted by the Howard County Historical Society team led by Shawn Gladden revealed that the caverns below Main Street were multi-purpose. They served as a hideaway for booze during Prohibition, importantly as a stop on the Underground Railroad (as with many properties in Howard County) and cold storage for a saloon and beer garden in the 19th century. This was not at all unusual for Maryland.

Prior to refrigeration the coolest place to lager beer (age at cooler temperatures for about 2 months) and to store it was underground. Subterranean Baltimore was a cavernous network of lagering cellars excavated deep beneath the streets of Canton, Highlandtown, Federal Hill, and the northern Bel Aire/ Gay Street quadrant of the city, as the grounds were immensely suitable for such an undertaking. Frederick and Cumberland also witnessed vast lagering cellar excavations, fomenting growth of the industry in those well-travelled, populous locales. To produce and offer quality beer, and grow a brewery’s customer base, deep underground vaults became a necessity. Admittedly, a few brewers attempted the same feat by digging instead into a tall hillsides with somewhat dodgy results. Depth was key to reaching proper temperatures and good beer.

What began as good quality control measures for brewers eventually branched into another, most valorous mechanism for societal change. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, many slaves sought freedom via the Underground Railroad. Success was dependent upon safe places to hide from slave catchers while traversing northward to (hopeful) freedom. Maryland was a critical state with several safe ‘stops’ for fugitive slaves. Although great risk was incurred by those that hid these travelers, many Marylanders stepped up, including brewers. After all, they possessed the perfect hiding place (or weigh station) that was oft overlooked. Once the Civil War broke out the cellars continued to provide hiding places, not just for slaves, but for other valuables- from jewelry to horses, and even a few AWOL soldiers. Many of the brewers paid other men to serve in their place during the war, so they could remain with their family (and businesses) as a measure of both physical and financial protection. Civil War era brewers shared numerous stories of soldiers from both sides taking beer, property, horses, food, and anything they could lay hands upon from the breweries and their homes. This was rampant, and many had to devise methods of protecting their property and securing their post war survival. The lagering cellars offered just such an opportunity. When soldiers did discover these hidden underground gems, they often took possession of the cellars as places to hide guns, ammunition, and lie in wait for the enemy.

After the Civil War, ‘Ice machines” became a standard feature of late 19th century breweries, obviating the need for the cellars for those that could afford this new mechanical refrigeration. Those deep cellars however were not forgotten and evolved into perfect contraband storage for bootleggers (and ‘in the know’ citizens hoarding booze) during Prohibition! It turned out to be ideal when federal dry agents decided to conduct raids (since Maryland never paid for or appointed local agents), as they knew nothing of the vast subterranean vaults just below their boots. After thirteen years, liquid gold flowed legally once again with those agents none the wiser.

Many of these cellars have since been filled in, a critical aspect to the vast infrastructure built atop. Some however, like those in Ellicott City are still concealed, waiting to be rediscovered, revealing secrets and deepening our understanding of Maryland’s rich history.
Sláinte!

When Craft Brewers Sell…

In recent years we have witnessed a vast growth in the craft beer market as well as a bit of a sell off. Why? The American dream? Certainly the entrepreneurial spirit of America includes building a successful business, selling it off and retiring comfortably. Many craft beer lovers are quick to castigate brewers that choose this path, often out of a sense of betrayal. The American dream also and often includes the creation of a business that foments the growth of communities through jobs and economic development, leaving a lasting legacy, sometimes for generations. This is the visage many staunch supporters of craft beer relish. These ‘dreams’ are not always mutually exclusive, but are often at conflicting purpose, most often based upon circumstance instead of (perceived) betrayal.

Currently, DuClaw Brewing founder Dave Benfield was quoted in a Baltimore Business Journal article as seeking an equity partner or new owner. As this information quickly spread, I was informed that DuClaw was not for sale but merely in need of funds to expand the taproom and canning line. This was based purely upon demand that the brewery could not meet until necessary funds became available. This is a perfect example of the convergence of needs potentially altering the course of the brewery. To remain competitive a brewery must be able to host patrons for tours and samples, and taprooms make that possible. That taproom however must be suitable to the interested number of attendees. Additionally, cans are the beating heart of craft at the moment. They are practical, prevent deterioration of the product for longer time than bottles, and are more portable (approved for beaches, parks, etc.) These are all practical business matters that smart breweries should invest in- if the demand is present. It clearly is in the case of DuClaw. So why tack on the extra- potential new owner clause. After all, it has served only to upset loyal DuClaw drinkers and begin an imagined countdown as to when AB-InBev will come calling.

Many breweries facing these sorts of expansion needs also require investment partners. 21st Amendment just sold an equity share to Brooklyn Brewery in a quest to drum up financial influx without ‘selling out’ to big beer. Brooklyn has also acquired an equity stake in Funkwerks, again helping them to remain competitive without ‘selling out’. 1 Brooklyn is a strong- perhaps ideal partner in the craft beer world, and has led the way in helping other craft brewers across the nation get started. Brooklyn cannot however invest in every craft brewery across the country. There are other interested investors, but there are major pitfalls to accompany them.

Last year Jim Koch of Sam Adams took part in a craft beer forum in Bethlehem, PA with Dick Yuengling and Ken Grossman. Koch made a statement regarding equity investors in the craft beer market that was rather jarring, “Equity investors have got to get a liquidity event…” meaning equity investments have a finite life span (anywhere from three to ten years) and at the end of that they need to be paid for their investment, quite a bit of money. If necessary this means resale, or a public offering. 2  The prediction? A great wave of sell-offs in the next decade for craft breweries that took on private equity partners. This is exactly the path many craft beer consumers object to. What is the alternative to investors? Not being able to meet the consumer demand equates to losing business, and the brewery’s market share in the region- or nation as the case may be. This is a downward trend that successful breweries want to avoid, as it may spell the end, particularly in highly crowded markets like California where they are nearing saturation. That is the antithesis of the American dream, and the very last thing craft beer consumers desire.

Beer for Thought…