All I Want For Christmas

For BeerNexus.com


It’s getting late and I haven’t written Santa yet so better get to it. Let’s see I’ve been
REALLY good this year: gone to the Cloverleaf almost every Tuesday, whether they
have a special event/tap takeover or not, got my second PhD (Professor of Hops &
Drafts) being the good student that I am, go loyally to my Draught Board 15 meetings
the second Sunday of each month, hit Friday Happy Hour with the guys almost every
week, went to Tap NY at Hunter Mountain the end of April, went to Harborfest in
Mamaroneck the end of September, log in most of my beers in Untappd and got lots
of silly little badges, brought a bunch of NJ brews up to the NH family reunion,
brought home beers from trips/vacations to share with my drinking buds, supported
craft breweries as much as I could; oh yes and faithfully kept the creative juices
flowing writing Big G’s Beer Beat every month. Wow, I’ve had a stellar year! I can’t
think of one bad thing I’ve done; well yes there is one biggie; I actually waited on a
line for a Magnify new release; but I was getting beers for the reunion, so I was
breaking one of my rules but only to do good, so maybe that’s just a little smudge
rather than a black mark.

Okay, I think Santa will be very impressed with the year I’ve had! Now what do I want
under my tree…

That’s easy, some new and unique craft beers, so I’ll just throw a few suggestions out
there for the big guy as it should be a lot easier for him to get these than me….how
about a Pomelo IPA and a Garbanzo Bean Gose and an Asparagus Pale Ale and a
Postum Stout and…

Whoa, Santa, slow down! I see that frown on your face and you’re about ready to
crumple up my humble note and toss it! I know what you’re thinking, just another beer
geek who can’t drink the same beer twice; it’s got to be something new, something
different, something weird. Well to quote the famous child star Sally Brown (yes I
know she was only a cartoon, but still a cartoon child!) in the classic A Charlie Brown
Christmas; “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share”. What’s
wrong with asking for my fair share? I’m just like everybody else; I see what’s new on
the draft list and if there is something of interest will give it a shot (well a taster is the
better descriptor); but I do discriminate, I’m not all that excited or interested in some
of the more exotic offerings (like the four above). And also that’s what the brewers
are offering.

So how did we get where we are, which to some may be wonderful and to others
definitely could be better. How did this all start? Who’s to blame??? Some would
immediately say it’s us, the consumers, that we have created an atmosphere of only
wanting to try what’s new and different, that brand loyalty no longer exists and
shouldn’t, which sounds very millennial to me. But when was the last time a brewer or
brewery asked you what you’d like either by email or when doing a tour or tasting
(more on that later)? So aren’t we consumers just forced to drink what they make (or
go back to Bud or Coors of course)? This sounds like a which came first, the chicken
or the egg, dilemma.

If we think back to the 70’s, first with New Albion Ale, and then the 80’s we had some
of the classic original craft beers appear; Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale,
Sam Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium Fat Tire to name a few. So basically they’
re mostly lagers and ales; probably the two most popular styles at that time; unless of
course you lived in Ireland and lived on Guinness. Let’s remember back then the
pioneer craft brewers didn’t have access to all the amazing equipment there is now,
nor did you have any distributor interested in representing you or your small beer,
they were much more interested in delivering large quantities. So they spent more
time brewing with less automated equipment and sold beer to individuals and local
bars. And many of us beer drinkers liked it, got away from the macros and wanted
more better tasting craft, so some became successful and other beer lovers saw the
opportunity to brew beer also. Initially I’d say it was beer lovers brewing good and
great tasting beer for other beer lovers.

By late 1995, early 1996 there were 1,000 microbreweries and brewpubs. It took until
2011, approximately sixteen years for that to double to 2,000. That’s good steady
growth! Many breweries had their “flagship” beer they were known for, but they also
made other styles, since not everyone has the same taste and a little variety never
hurt anyone. IPA’s began to dominate not only the ale category but the craft beer
industry.

We, craft beer drinkers, were basically in heaven! You could get consistently good
tasting beer! You would hear about craft beers that were making a name for
themselves in other parts of the country, that you might get to try on a trip or if
someone brought some home. As breweries grew more successful they expanded
their distribution and became more available. We drinkers looked forward to new
beer offerings and “tap takeovers” where we get to sample many beers from one
brewery.

But then the entire country went nuts for craft beers. Seems like every Tom, Dick and
Harry, and even a few Janes, decided it would be a great idea to open a brewery. In
the span of six years we’re about to triple the number of craft breweries to six
thousand! Along the way there were defections as the macro breweries took notice
and began buying some of the more successful bigger names. Many of us shy away
from their offerings, not that they don’t make good beer anymore, just that we feel
they’ve sold out. But honestly that’s the American dream, to work hard to build a
successful company and get bought out, that’s capitalism. And many will grow with
cash infusion to do more and benefit from a wider distribution, but we all worry about
them being co-opted by their new owner. Venture capital noticed also and decided
this was an area they could invest in and make money, which again scares us
consumers. Some breweries couldn’t handle the competition and closed. Others were
rescued before closing being bought by other breweries. And other breweries
merged to have a larger footprint and be able to better compete.

Has there ever been more competition for such a small segment of the beer market?
So brewers need to stand out and the best way to do that from a consumer
standpoint is by making really good beer, doing silly eye catching labels and maybe
giving away a pint glass or an opener or even a t-shirt. But many have taken it a step
further; they try to make the most different beer they can to attract our attention. And
I’m not referring to styles. In addition to the usual pilsner, stout, porter, lager, we’re
seeing many styles we hadn’t seen much of before; Saisons, Sours, Goses,
Hefeweizen, Bock, Kolsch, brown, Weiss and even Grisette. That’s not a bad thing. I
won’t be drinking a steady diet of these like I will IPAs and Pales, but variety is good; I
don’t eat the same dinner every night.

But then we start to go astray. Sometimes they’re adding really funky stuff to the
brew; rocky mountain oysters, squid ink and old bay seasoning to name a few. Is it
the stranger the better? Some other brewers will make a beer that’s supposed to
taste like something we already know, Black Forest Cake or an Orange Cream or an
Oreo. I know it’s really cute, but what are you doing? Aren’t you just adding flavorings
to alter the taste? What’s creative about that? And please don’t tell me you’re part of
the “farm to table” movement so you’ll add whatever you find locally; I’m not buying
that. And not that I’m a Pumpkin beer hater, but it’s brewed long before the pumpkins
are ready, so you’re using pumpkin puree from last year’s harvest…farm to can to
brew to bottle/can is more like it.

Another trend is the big increase in barrel aging. It certainly adds another dimension
and more and more breweries are doing it. Some are excellent, but many are just too
boozy.

The one positive area we have seen is in the hops. There are now more varieties
and we see brewers using multiple hops in different combinations to come up with
different tastes. There are some who use this successfully to slightly alter recipes
and keep coming up with “new” beers. It’s a little bit of a gimmick but I like that a lot
better than you adding weird stuff.

And by what we buy and drink we beer drinking consumers are giving signals to the
brewers and some made changes. Jim Koch of Sam Adams realized he needed to
add IPA’s to his lineup. D.L.Gearys in Maine opened in 1983 and was clearly one of
the original regional craft beer pioneers. Having had many, their Pale Ale and
Hampshire Special Ale are excellent. As other breweries opened and created more
style choices and IPAs grew, Gearys stayed the course with their traditional English-
style ales making the great beer they do, but that wasn’t enough. Demand and
therefore production declined year after year, dropping over a third from 2011 to
2015, until they were forced, like Sam Adams, to add more styles to their lineup and
eventually were sold this year. So we do have some input. But by constantly tasting
the latest and greatest we allow some of the really good brewers to suffer and in turn
potentially lose a great product.

And since I asked earlier what brewer asks for consumer input I do need to give
credit to Sierra Nevada. If you joined they actually do send out emails asking for
input. It could be on style or packaging or whatever, but it looks like they’re trying to
gauge and incorporate our interest if you’re willing to spend a few minutes answering
their questions. They not only make great beer, it appears they try to listen also!
So who’s driving this, the chicken or the egg, the consumer or the brewer? I’m not
sure there is a definitive answer. Being a consumer I tend to give a lot more credit to
the brewers, but we can’t ignore the societal impacts that affect both of us either. And
as this craziness continues, whoever is driving, I don’t know if you know where we’re
headed, but when you get to the fork…take it.

But hey it’s Christmas, so enough of this. I’ll tell you what Santa I’ll make it real easy;
how about a six of Sam Adams (you pick the style), a six of Sierra Nevada (again you
pick the style, although Celebration would be an excellent seasonal choice), a six of
Anchor Steam and then surprise me with the last six pack. I have faith that you
wouldn’t throw me a zinger by finishing it with a Bud or Coors or Heineken or Corona;
you know my tastes, and besides that would just ruin my Christmas day as I’d spend
the entire day trying to pawn that stuff off on the relatives.



Glenn DeLuca writes about beer and culture of drinking. He may
be reached by writing thebigG@beernexus.com.

***   ***   ***
Glenn DeLuca
Outtakes from a life of beer.
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