Bar Tending & Beerspectives
by Matt Martinkovic
Brewsearch & Development -
Since leaving the industry in 2015 it is insane to see that the IPA market (with all these
weird subdivisions) hasn’t scorched peoples’ palates to the point of disinterest or showed
any real significant signs of slowing. It’s also interesting how, and I cannot be explicit enough -
not simply because of the style, more people aren’t diversifying their outlook on styles of
beers but also from where they derive.

Breweries are popping up at a rate of 2 per day and there are more than 5,000 nationwide
(Beer Business News Daily 4/11/17). Quite an amazing accomplishment since our ‘microbrew’
blip in the late eighties to the ‘craft’ revolution that picked up steam around the late 1990s.
And so it goes as we’ve seen it before in all sorts of markets. New breweries seemingly
popping up out of nowhere like little scattered stars on a moonless night. One by one
becoming more noticeable across the vast sky leaving the mind blown by how many there
are yet still how much open space there truly is. Then there’s the bold and wondrously
timeless stars with the power to be seen even with a full moon shining being bought and
pegged up on the board of the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em buy ‘em’ model that any major
company, with the net to, will certainly cast out in order to drag in.

The perpetual cycle of business and let’s face it, if it seems beneficial for a brewery to be
bought in part or in its entirety in order to secure its employees while possibly adding more
and expand (not necessarily in that order or with that intent) then who’s to argue with
positive, healthy growth? Seems to me Lagunitas hasn’t stopped being who they truly
are – minus going back on the destructive nature of making canned beer argument
purported by Tony Magee years back.

But, and there is always a but, with the amount of breweries popping up and the diversity
of locations from where they arise, the overall market still shows some signs of growth and
potential. The micro-foundations of any market can yield a more interesting tale should they
tell us anything at all. Dating back to around 2013 or so there has been something peculiar
about the beer and beer styles being pumped out around our state and it still seems like
everyone has some sort of ‘fresh’ take on the IPA. Or, if another style seems to be trending,
say the gose style – another can be palate monster, then we see that pop up as the IPA
sidler (Seinfeld anyone?). In all of this there is a sort of frenzy to brew, sell, distribute, and
for restaurants and bars to be the first to have the latest in what I believe is no more than
the latest attempts to reinvent the wheel.

Demand is surely a principal player in the market and there is no denying that IPA’s are a
hit. However, at this point the IPA has become so redundant, regardless of what hop
character of the month the brewer uses, that the category is and has been for some time,
consuming itself. IPA, Session IPA, Enjoy by dated IPA’s – in case you didn’t know they are
supposed to be drank fresh (unless you are doing a personal experiment with dating),
Double IPA, Wheat/IPA’s, or the ibu’s off the chart that funny names are made for it to grab
your attention. When you boil it down to brass tacks the session IPA is nothing more than
an average American Pale Ale. In some cases the American Pale Ale may actually have
more hop bite, a fuller body, and a slightly more robust flavor profile than the session even
with the ABV’s being virtually the same. Point is now you are just conflating, even
convoluting, genres or categories in an attempt to (re)create a category that, in reality,
should exist as a distinct entity because, historically and literally speaking, it is.

We’ve seen the acquisition of Goose Island by AB-INBEV and their first order of business was
to get their IPA everywhere to make it the No.1 selling IPA on the world market. The old ‘strike
while the iron’ is hot adage. It makes me wonder what the strategy is for their portfolio as a
whole in the micro or state-to-state markets and the aggregate effects and implications that
has for the brand overall. In NJ, for example, their distributor High Grade Beverage doesn’t
give a damn about Goose Island except for making sure the IPA is being sold first and
foremost with a trickle down from there. The same model they used for Bud and Bud Light.
You have to buy these and then we’ll consider attempting to get you what you want. A game
that they always play and a game any business owner or bar manager can avoid by telling
them they work for you and there is plenty of great beer in the market; Goose Island IPA
pales in comparison to anything you can get local such as Kane Head High.

Problems for Goose Island only get bigger with High Grade Distributors. For example,
another flagship that High Grade pushes is 312 Urban Wheat. Yet, in the same portfolio
you only need turn to the import section and see: Paulaner, Harcker Pschorr, and the duke,
Weihenstephan. Why settle for s
imilac when you can have mother’s milk? So again I ask,what
of the Goose Island brand in New Jersey? Who cares if I can get it at any stadium or arena or
anywhere else High Grade dominates or is the only distributor whose beers are present on
tap. What’s believed to be good for High Grade’s/AB-INBEV’s gander certainly can’t be good
for the Goose; especially when you break down all of the available markets within just this
state. Now, if this is the way Goose Island wants it then I have no idea what they are doing
and I’ll let it be and call me a dolt. If NJ is simply a vessel for their flagships with an occasional
one-off then so be it. I suppose I don’t understand why anyone would want their beer to be
monopolized like that where it is a forced sale because it is the only ‘craft’ in that market
(e.g. arenas). Wow, I really got off track.        

      It doesn’t matter whether we are talking the number of breweries that are popping up in
states like ours or the nation as a whole and whom is buying who and placing whatever of
their beer where. What matters is what’s brewing. And what’s brewing needs a bit of
representation across styles, not vapid diversification amongst one distinct style. Listen, I
am not saying breweries aren’t doing their fair share of brewing, or at least making
attempts at other styles, they are, but I do believe when most of their portfolios consist of 3 or
4 different takes on a hoppy beer – Session IPA, American IPA, American Pale Ale, Wheat
IPA, name your hop IPA, Enjoy by such and such date IPA, IPA with some sort of fruited-
citrused up flavor – this somewhat circles back to name your hop IPA, some sort of flavored
gose sidler, and something so whacky that you just have to try it, something is awry.

In the last two years I was in the industry I spent all of my time learning about old world
brewing traditions and soaking up a lot of what was going on in Europe in terms of both old
and new (for new you better keep up with Spain and Italy; for ciders, especially unpasteurized
farm fresh see France and Spain), what influenced American brewing traditions, and what
never came to fruition on this side of the pond. The main attraction for the bar while I
managed it without interference was the wonder of what’s next, where it was from, and
the magic behind it; not what take on the same style is next. If brewers and restaurants
continue to play the selection game like a plant breeder the result is going to be different
takes on Easter lily’s year-round. By that standard is anyone really going to care but
once a year? We already have seasonals of all sorts.

      For restaurants with a focus on beer and bars with a decent pub grub menu this is the
funniest dilemma because you have a twofold issue: beverage and food sales. One of the
greatest marketing strategies for the craft beer scene was the ingenuity in convincing people
to pair food with their beer or vice versa based on your perspective, mood, and location I
suppose. It’s smart, strategic, safe - for all parties involved in the transaction, makes the
experience that much more enjoyable, and for the restauranteur - profitable. Pricing schemes
aside, the average amount per customer ticket increase the more profitable the business.
Limit the diversity of the beer styles you sell and limit your food choices sold no matter the
items on the menu. Is it that simple? Not really, but yes. Some people really don’t care what
beer they have with their food and some will not drink alcoholic beverages with their food.
For those who do drink beer and cider, maybe a mead with dessert or as an aperitif like
snacking on fruit, what have you, it is a beautiful exchange to be able to provide viable
options with meals or stages of meals and an absolute gold mine for the restaurant. You
don’t need five different IPA’s with five variations unless of course that is how your food
menu is arranged and limited, say maybe just for that occasion.

      Beer thrives from the work done on, with, and towards future varietals of the hop plant
(among a host of other toilsome, yet intriguing activities) not on the variety of ways we can
direct those varietals into the same style of beer. This goes from brewing a single beer all
the way up to acquisition and distribution. Perspective on beer is far different than
perspective from it and it is more the wiser to gain perspective from a beer than to
continually accrue a perspective on the same one. Once perspective is lost the costs
certainly outweigh the gains. For you up and coming state breweries, who or what will bail
you out when this bubble bursts? Slow down and explore flavour and diversity and how,
through a bit of direction and chance, variety yields a world full all these wonderfully
evolved species, not just little silly differences of the same one. Think of humans in this
case, we suck no matter how you coat us or how different we claim to be.      
 


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Cheers,
Matt
Matt Martinkovic is not only a recognized beer authority but an agricultural
consultant on, of course, the growing of hops.  His personal hop garden currently
features Magnum, Crystal, Cascade, Centennial,Mt. Hood, and Chinook hops..
The Expanding Narrowness of the
American Beer Market
To all my readers and friends many thanks for all your support.
Also special thanks to two great breweries and the many fine people associated with them:
Conclave Brewing and Kane Brewing.
Come back soon for more of my take on what's happening in the beer world with my
insights derived from many years in the industry.  Cheers!