Blog Entries

Some Choice Words

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Category: General Blogs

Full disclosure: I’m a devoted craft beer drinker. (Big shock).

I more than eagerly seize every opportunity to tout how beer consumers live in a time of unprecedented choice. That’s never more apparent than at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and this year’s edition was no different.

But it’s not just craft brewers that sample their products, as the likes of Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors tend to have tables and the awards competition features categories like the macro-friendly American Style Light Lager.

Of course, the big guys have been putting out craft-like brands, much to the chagrin of the small brewers.

I’ve tried to be Switzerland on the “craft” versus “crafty” debate, primarily because it’s really just semantics. I know what I like to drink and I know what I don’t like. I also believe that whatever brands I personally choose not to drink have a right to exist so other consumers have a chance to choose whether or not to drink them. (Having said that, I also believe in brands being upfront about their origins, enabling consumers to make informed choices.)

One of my more eye-opening experiences as GABF last month actually involved one of those large brewers playing in the craft sand box (or Sandlot in this case), Blue Moon—the MillerCoors brand that’s been singled out as a macro in craft’s clothing. Blue Moon invited me to its booth for a tasting and meet and greet with brewmaster John Legnard. I sampled some of the brewery’s latest, little-known limited offerings including First Peach Ale, a brown ale with a slightly tart peach note;  White IPA, a hybrid of a Belgian-style wit and an India pale ale; and Cinnamon Horchata Ale, which very closely mimics the taste of the Latin American beverage it emulates. Some of my fellow craft-devout might unfriend me for what I’m about to say, but so be it: They were actually quite flavorful. Blue Moon may not be everyone’s choice, and that’s okay. But it has a right to be a choice. If I had let geeky biases get in the way, I would have missed out on a fairly memorable malt-and-hops moment. Score one for cognitive dissonance.

You know what else has a right to be a choice? Macro-produced, corn-and-rice-filled light lagers. Celeb chef David Chang recently got lambasted by many in the craft community for a GQ blog entry in which he declared, “I love cheap, watery, swill.” Hey, to each his own. Time and place for everything, right? One of my own fond beer memories involves sitting on a rickety plastic stool in Vietnam, eating cockles grilled  on the sidewalk and drinking the local mass-produced adjunct-laden light lager…over ice! I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but, you know, when in Saigon…

Back in the states, the breadth of available choices is what makes the beer market here the envy of the rest of the world (at last!) The argument against the multinational brewing behemoths has been that for decades they’d limited the options available to consumers. I think it’s critical for those of us who champion the underdog (and yes, I include myself among those champions) to not do the same by begrudging someone a selection that might not quite mesh with our own sensibilities.

There’s an App for That

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Category: General Blogs

I was having breakfast with some friends and the conversation drifted to how the emerging so-called “sharing economy” is changing our lives. We started discussing apps like Uber, which can locate a driver when you need a ride, which I had heard about.  My friends also filled me in on some I never even heard of, like TaskRabbit, which apparently enables you to get help with any kind of chore you have around the house. 
 
Being in my 40’s, I guess I am right on the cusp between those who are open to all these new sharing-economy options and those who would reject them outright. Let’s face it, I’ve lived most of my life hailing yellow cabs, staying at Holiday Inns or Hiltons, and yes, doing my own laundry. To suddenly have a wave of internet-enabled service providers come along offering entirely new ways of doing these things is a little disorienting. 
 
Anyway, back to my breakfast conversation and how it ties into beverages. One of my friends began insisting that home brewing was tied into the sharing economy as well. The idea seemed to fall on deaf ears in the crowd, including my own. On first thinking, I just couldn’t see how people brewing their own beer could possibly become a sharing economy service. 
 
But the idea has stuck with me ever since. Not so much about its particular viability, but about what the sharing economy might mean to the beverage industry in the future. After all, the Internet has been around for a while now and yet it appears that just in the past few years the sharing economy is really getting off the ground. Who’s to say what other industries—including, yes, beverage—might soon be impacted by it?
 
So far, the closest the beverage business seems to have come to this new economy is when it comes to crowdsourcing. Companies like MobCraft use input from users to decide the next beer they’ll brew. It’s still quite different from having thousands of home brewers making their own beer and then using an app to sell or even trade with each other. But is it too far-fetched to think that in the not-too-distant future that actually might happen? Sure, there would probably be some major quality issues, but it would be a lot of fun, no?
 
And then what would come next? Could household kitchens the world over suddenly be selling and/or trading fresh-squeezed juices? What about home-brewed coffee? 
 
If you want evidence of how technology can revolutionize a beverage category, then just consider how SodaStream managed to upend the soda business—for a time, anyway. And that was kind of old-school technology, if you think about it. Plug it into the internet and who knows what the future holds?  
 

The Heart of the Business

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Category: General Blogs

 
I find it difficult to resist the intrigue surrounding the biggest companies in the beverage business. I’m drawn to the big stories, and what big companies do make for big stories. Sometimes what they do reverberates across the industry, like when the Big Three soda makers pledge to cut the calories consumed from their products, or when the biggest beer producer is rumored to make another huge M&A deal. And sure enough, both of these stories are covered in-depth in this issue.
 
But I’m also drawn to the stories of the individuals who come along with an idea and a lot of heart.  The beverage business is full of these stories and more come along every day. 
Fourteen years ago Seth Goldman worked out of a storefront in Baltimore, with a van outside painted with logos touting a bottled tea made from fair-trade ingredients. These were the days when Seth literally peddled door-to-door to get someone, anyone to try his tea.  Today Honest Tea is a featured business of  The Coco-Cola Company, but Seth still steers the business, still drives the van so to speak.
 
Jim Koch started brewing Samuel Adams in his kitchen at a time when the number of breweries in the U.S. were at an all-time low and way before there was a clamor for craft beers. Now Boston Beer is 30 years young, Sam Adams is distributed nationally and overseas, and Jim is the dean of craft brewers.
 
Here are some of more recent vintage, and who knows how these stories will play out:
Brothers Shawn and Aaron Grose are set to open Windmill Pointe Brewery in a Detroit neighborhood that was once the home of the Stroh Brewery Co. They want to produce good beer and be a part of a Detroit turnaround.  They’ve also come up with a novel way to, ah, “pedal” the venture: they intend to outfit the brewery with stationary bikes wired to produce the energy needed to brew the beer. “We’ve been talking about this [for] seven years, and there comes a time when you either keep on dreaming or bring that dream to reality,” Shawn told The Wall Street Journal.
 
Adam Gayner is a self-professed anti-sugar crusader, which is the basis for Fred Water, which he co-founded. Fred’s been marketing its water in a hip, flask-shaped bottle, but now is selling the bottles empty. Gayner says, “We get a lot of questions about our business model with this mission of promoting water, refilling and now Empties…We innovate around consumer desires and know that we’re creating affinity and tremendous brand value with Fred.”
 
BeatBox Beverages founders Brad Schultz, Aimy Steadman and Justin Fenchel recently appeared on the ABC show “Shark Tank” to pitch their line of bag-in-box, fruit flavored wines. Their pitch resulted in Mark Cuban investing $1 million for a third of the company. “We knew Mark was our guy all along because he’s a genius and he gets that we’re not just selling drinks, we’re selling fun,” Fenchel told Austin Business Journal. “Since then he’s been way more hands on than I ever would have dreamed of.”  
 
 

For Your Consideration...

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: beer, brewing, alcohol, spirits

We tend to use the term “Emotional roller coaster” so much in our every day lives, both personal and professional, that we’ve become numb and oblivious to just how much of a cliché it’s become. But there really is no better way to describe major global beverage alcohol news from the past month and a half or so. Reading the headlines of the past six weeks has been akin to watching all of the most hackneyed cinematic clichés play out on screen.

There’s the tragic romance in which the overtures of a much more well-to-do suitor (SABMiller) are ultimately rebuffed by the object of affection (Heineken). Of course, that unrequited pursuit may have been in defiance of a forced marriage (AB InBev).

Then there’s the tale of the rebellious, sardonic hipster whose tough, above-it-all exterior really hides a delicate vulnerability (Pabst). That all comes to the surface when the rebel falls for an exotic stranger from a faraway land (Russia).

And, especially this time of year, there has to be plenty of Oscar bait. And who doesn’t like a good, sweeping epic? It’s the story of a nation in conflict (Scotland) and the common hard-working folk (The Scotch whisky industry) just trying to get by as the world around them is nearly torn at the seams. I say ‘nearly,’ as at the 11th hour, that world was forged back together.

Okay, I should get serious for a bit, put on my movie critic’s hat, and tackle each of these in reverse order.

The Scotch Whisky Association sees last month’s “No” vote on Scottish independence as the dodging of quite a bullet. If Scotland had left the United Kingdom, uncertainty and instability in the Scotch market would prevail. Whisky exports already have been falling. If the industry suddenly faced new tariffs as it tried to ship to its biggest markets in the EU—which it would have to go through a potentially lengthy process of rejoining as its own entity—it wouldn’t bode well for the bottom line.

On the Pabst development, I was surprised (well, not really) at how many people expressed shock that the brand that’s enjoyed a renaissance at the hands of American hipsters would be (*GASP*) foreign-owned (and by investors in Mother Russia, no less). To that, I say, “Get over it.” Pabst has been playing ownership musical chairs for years. It’s essentially a trademark holding company, as it doesn’t operate its own breweries. Drinkers shouldn’t get too upset about something as abstract as a trademark. It’ll be business as usual.

As for the AB InBev-SABMiller dance and the SABMiller-Heineken dalliance: That’s a little more serious. If a merger between the two biggest brewers were to take place, it’d essentially create an entity that’s responsible for nearly a third of all beer volume in the world and closer to 40 percent of its revenue. That’s pretty intimidating. But I wouldn’t get too scared because there are far too many regulatory hurdles to jump before such a combination could become a reality. As for Heineken, my hat’s off to the family for, well, wanting to keep it in the family (at least for now). Though, it would’ve given SABMiller a solid and rapidly growing Mexican brand (Dos Equis) with which it can compete directly with the Modelo business that AB InBev now owns.

But I’ve had enough of these manipulative, heart-string-tugging films. I’m in the mood for a feel-good comeback story. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Kentucky. If there’s ever been any doubt that the bourbon renaissance is here to stay, just look at what Diageo’s been up to over the past couple of months. The company broke ground on its $115 million Bulleit Distilling Co. distillery and cut the ribbon on the visitors’ center at the rejuvenated historic Stitzel-Weller facility. When the world’s biggest spirits market gives the Bluegrass State and its distilling heritage that much of a vote of confidence, it makes me eager to get off that chaotic emotional roller coaster in favor of another cliché: raising a glass.