Tag Archives: craft beer

A Whole Brew World

One year ago I was in Peru; we had flown to Cusco from Lima and taken a combi van to Ollantaytambo where we met our friends and their baby and their dog Rabbit. The day after we arrived, I assisted on the first of a two-day kettle sour beer at Cerverceria del Valle Sagrado, which my friends had helped build. The brewery is right next to the Urubamba River, and right across the street from thousand-foot cliffs. Finding a witbier at 9,000 feet elevation halfway across the world from its origin would have been a preposterous idea ten years ago. But there it was (and then wasn’t; I drank it).

Even odder was Wick’s, the English pub in Lima’s Barranco district. Barranco is the Peruvian version of the hip, low-slung neighborhood you might find in Portland or San Francisco. Every night, bands played at several spots on the sprawling plaza. Little kids zipped around on tiny wheels while parents watched percussion troupes. Native and tourist couples snogged and took selfies on el Puente de los Suspiros, the Bridge of Sighs.

In Wick’s, the street life disappeared except when the door opened. The large men at the bar had British accents, though they may have been Dutch. The barkeep pulled pints with sluggish indignation; I tried to chat him up casually, but he wasn’t having it. Only on my return visit, to watch the Super Bowl (yes, the Super Bowl goddammit), did he engage in the slightest. It must be frustrating to have a rotating cast of ex-pats and tourists at your bar.

Sunburnt and satisfied. At Wick’s Pub in Lima drinking an English bitter, representing Agrarian Ales.

But the beer was fantastic. The stout was stout but quaffable. The pale was flowers and biscuits. The tiny brew system couldn’t have been larger than 3 barrels. The gin ‘n tonic was mostly gin; that seems pretty appropriate. It felt sort of wrong to sit at a brown bar crushing pints of bitter in the middle of Lima; wrong that I chose to escape the onslaught of culture outside for a moment; wrong that such a place even existed amid the cevicherias. But then there are McDonalds and Starbucks crowded with locals; it is a huge, international city. Would a Peruvian think twice about getting a causa in D.C.? At the time, it also felt quite comfortable.

This won’t be the last not-in-Kansas-anymore sensation I get in my beer travels. I look forward to tasting how breweries in Berlin interpret an IPA in a couple months. As craft beer has grown global, it’s brought along certain aesthetics; these manifested differently at each of the 6 or so breweries we went to in Peru. The vibes swung from modern to homey, but each insinuated “craft beer” in its own way.


Distributor Merger Poses Threat

At the end of a long day, I was greeted by this post on The New School announcing the sale of General Distributors, Inc. (GDI) to Columbia Distributing. Columbia is one of the largest distributors in the country, and serves major areas in Washington and Oregon, as well as northern California. GDI serves the greater Portland area, as far south as Corvallis (I believe). As my recent past life involved a lot of interaction with distributors, and my way past life involved a wariness of businesses that grow too big and swallow or destroy others, this sale piqued my interest.

Of the three main Eugene-area distributors, Columbia has the largest catalog. But let’s back up a second:

Distributors are the “middle” tier of the three-tier system of beer distribution. The system was formed after Prohibition to prevent tied houses, which is when a brewery has an exclusive agreement with an independently owned retail establishment. Inserting a middle man and requiring all beer (some exceptions, state-by-state) to go through that process removes the possibility of a tied house and encourages fair business practices. In real life, pay-to-play is still alive but doesn’t have the same anti-competitive impact.

The three-tier system has gone through the evolution of beer in the U.S., from the consolidation of breweries that led to the “big three,” Bud-Miller-Coors, to the first and second waves of the craft beer movement that essentially ruined the Mad Men fantasy world of beer distributors. Now, distributors are partly responsible for representing all of the brands in their catalogs. The relationship between a brewery and its distributor is crucial to maintaining that representation; if a brewery doesn’t have a plan and communicate it effectively, it will likely flounder. It’s like any other business. Back to the main plot–

columbia warehouse
Columbia Distributing’s Portland warehouse is enormous.

Columbia has the largest catalog in town. Bigfoot Beverages in Eugene is much smaller, and has a concentrated, high quality catalog of craft beer and other beverages. Bigfoot also works with GDI to distribute certain brands in its territory, which covers the central coast to Bend, and south to Roseburg. In Oregon, distributors cannot overlap distribution of a brand. This is what’s troubling. The merger has the potential to take away business, by default, from another distributor. It also poses a threat to breweries in GDI’s catalog that have built relationships with retailers through the distributor.

The merger may or may not have anything to do with a strike in late 2015. The two week lapse upset the production and distribution schedules of numerous breweries, and resulted in many thousands of dollars lost for some, as they lost valuable shelf space during one of the busiest times of the year. Though the union was decertified and pushed out of GDI, damage had been done. It took months for breweries to recover from the upset.

Consolidation brings more concern, as a strike at Columbia could deal a blow to even more breweries. In addition, Oregon laws favor distributors; it is nearly impossible for a brewery to switch distributors without paying large sums of money, even if the brewery is dissatisfied with the service.

With so many breweries in Columbia’s catalog, it will be even harder for smaller brands to be recognized and properly represented; the distributor will act in its own interest by focusing on brands that perform well, and breweries with deeper pockets will have a louder voice in the crowd as they can offer incentives to sell. And while the goal will not be to squash anybody, it will happen. At that point, the onus is not just on the brewery to push hard to represent itself; retailers who care about variety will have to work harder to find unique offerings and support the underdog.

Has Columbia grown too big? What are the options for the affected breweries, which have no say in the matter? This is a complicated issue, to say the least.

Got style?

craftbeer.com, the online wing of the Brewers Association, just published an article entitled: “Craft Beer Styles: Why They Matter & When They Don’t.” Part of the author’s argument for beer styles is a complaint that some menus read like fashion magazine ads with the made-up citation,  “Enjoy eating greatness? Then this super complex, one of a kind delicacy will indulge your deepest gustatory cravings.” This hyperbolic notion lasts for about half of the article before the author gets into the history and evolution of beer, which is the real reason there are beer styles (apart from the human obsession with categorization). Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about “what is craft beer?” and I would argue that saying “craft beer styles” is pretentious (Is lite American lager not a beer style because Coors Light is not craft beer?).

Beer styles, as we know them, evolved originally because of water, and brewers’ repeated attempts to create beer best suited to their water. Mineral content has a grand effect on the flavor of beer, and brewers have, over the centuries, adapted their brewing methods to the limits of their local water source. Entire books have been written on the subject. Styles have also developed through popular (and political) demand. If the Germans and Bohemians hadn’t enjoyed the paler lagers more than the variable-colored dark beers that existed before modern malting and yeast cultivation, Anheuser-Busch would be peddling a very different product with their Clydesdales.

Here we run into a (somewhat nonsensical) chicken-egg/Schroedinger’s Cat debate: Would there still be styles if Michael Jackson hadn’t gone about categorizing them in the 1970s? Would the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program have written their fairly strict definitions by which beers are to be judged, awarded medals and kudos? Style guidelines are basically a palate-training program with military instincts (disclosure: I’m a ranked BJCP judge, and enjoy judging beer and questioning authority.) . Beers that don’t fit neatly into a category may never receive the acclaim they deserve. One local example was brewed by Eugene’s Claim 52; Trevor’s War Steiner Weisse was a mishmash of styles and techniques: a high percentage wheat wort fermented with Kolsch yeast at Belgian temperatures (upwards of 75F, well over the yeast’s preferred range). Magically, the beer was excellent, with unusual fruit esters, smooth body, and a dually thirst quenching and inducing finish.

There’s a place you can go where the idea of style is turned on its head, where water (though obviously a factor) isn’t as important as yeast, and style isn’t as important as a brewery’s house flavor. That place is Belgium. Of course, there are classic styles like Dubbel and Tripel, and other brews from the monastic traditions that tend to conform to specific flavor profiles, but there are many, many more that do not. Even among the Trappist breweries there are beers that eschew moniker; Orval is a notable example, as are the Rochefort beers (6, 8, and 10 are available in the U.S.), which are much less estery than the average Belgian ale. A homebrewer friend who regularly makes Belgian-esque ales doesn’t often apply categories to his beers; he refers to them by brew number: “Oh, that’s #473, it’s pale, bottle conditioned with honey… try it!”

The whole idea of “style” kinda falls apart when beer is brewed with indigenous ingredients, spontaneously fermented, or otherwise given over to nature, so to speak. De Garde Brewing in Tillamook uses wild yeast and bacteria harvested from the air, much like Belgian Lambic breweries. Agrarian Ales uses river sage, a native artemesia, in some of its herbal beers. Propolis in Port Townsend, WA, uses wildcrafted herbs in all of its beers, which change month-to-month. Local flavors are slowly making  a comeback– after several centuries of legislated hop use, Old World brewing practices are making a small return to the collective brewing unconscious.

The canon of beer styles is an important learning tool and cultural artifact, and cannot be dismissed. At the same time, pigeonholing beer can be detrimental. Try to embrace the “?” beers, the Category 23 beers; those are often the hardest to create, the riskiest innovations, and the most challenging to the norm.