Blog Entries by Jeff Cioletti

Don't Let Quality Be Blinded By Quantity

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Category: General Blogs

If there’s one theme that sticks in my head from last month’s Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) & BrewExpo America in Denver, it’s quality versus quantity. Or, more specifically, how much does the latter help or hurt the former?
 
The quality issue has been a running theme at the past handful of CBCs and has been a core talking point in Brewers Association director Paul Gatza’s annual State of the Craft Brewing Industry address. And it kind of has to be, especially when you’re bringing quantity into the equation. By quantity, I mean, of course, the exploding number of new breweries getting into the craft business year after year. Just last year the number of new craft operations surged by about 15 percent to 2,768 at the end of 2013.  

It’s exciting but it’s also somewhat frightening and that sentiment’s certainly not lost on the folks at the Brewers Association. It’s a segment whose key players have survived and thrived largely because of an uncompromising commitment to quality. The pioneers got in the business when there was no bandwagon on which to jump or wave to ride.

But now, as everyone from financial community to amateur brewing hobbyists are hip to the accelerating growth of craft, there could be many getting into the business without getting their heads around what’s truly involved. I’ve spoken to more than a few people who’s said, “I’m a pretty good home brewer and my friends said I should start a brewery. So I did.” And more than a few others among the moneyed classes who’ve said, “I hear craft brewing’s hot, so I’m going to invest in it even though I don’t know much about it or really care all that much about beer.”

I can somewhat relate with the first group. It wouldn’t be immodest of me to say that the dozen years I’ve been writing about beer (not to mention every other beverage) that I know slightly more than the average consumer about it.

But I could never claim to know as much or more about beer than actual brewers or authors who’ve had several books published on the topic—many of whom I count among my friends. The friends not involved in beer in anyway, however, think I know “everything” about the beverage because I know a few more things about it than they do. So I’ve had them tell me on more than one occasion, “Hey, you should start a brewery.” Umm, no. There are two types of insight my experience has afforded me. No. 1: Running a brewery is hard work.  No. 2: The more I learn about brewing the more I learn how little I know about brewing.

So it scares me when folks say they’d committed their every penny to a business based on nothing more than the urgings of less-knowledgeable friends.
   
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that there’s so much interest in craft beer and so many new players. I fell in love with craft beer my first year at Beverage World and the rise of the segment over the past decade-plus has paralleled my own personal beer geek adventure.

This is personal for me. I don’t want this surge in quantity to be at the expense of quality. Because it’s quality that really makes craft...well, craft.

In the Weeds

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Category: General Blogs

I have to be honest; I really hadn’t given marijuana or any form of pot legalization much thought before this year. I’ve more or less been indifferent on the whole movement, as I don’t really have any skin in that game, personally or professionally. It wasn’t until I attended Harry Schuhmacher’s Beer Industry Summit at the end of January that it started occupying any space in my brain because it seemed that a disproportionate number of attendees were talking about it—the stuff had just become legal in that big beer state of Colorado only a few weeks before. Some pondered whether it would be a competitive threat to the beer business.

The short answer, in my take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt opinion: of course not.

This isn’t 1933 when suddenly a substance that the public had, for 14 years, been clamoring to make legal again (and only became illegal in the first place because savvy, manipulative advocacy groups that didn’t represent the majority of the U.S. population wanted it that way) was once again legit. The three-tier system was born. The beverage alcohol supply chain was defined for generations. And, technological advances, consolidation and SKU proliferation nothwithstanding, it’s still pretty much the same system it was 80 years ago.  

The logistics and infrastructure of pot are a lot more, well, foggy (pun intended). Also, for those avid beer drinkers who also partake of the wacky weed on the down-low, it’s hardly ever been an either/or proposition when it comes to bongs versus brews. And, if you’ve spent as much time hanging around brewers as I have, you’ll know many of them are pretty flexible when it comes to their philosophies on pot.

Then there’s the obvious fact that consumers enjoy beer, especially craft beer, for its flavor and refreshment, not primarily for its intoxicating effects. Few talk about the subtle notes of citrus and chocolate when toking on a joint.

That’s not to say there aren’t some dangers inherent in the legalization debate. Schuhmacher, of Beer Business Daily fame, pointed out that a major talking point among weed advocates is that it’s safer than alcohol. Rhetoric like that is something folks in the beverage alcohol business really don’t need in their lives. All that it does is provide fodder for neo-Prohibitionist organizations (Alcohol Justice comes to mind), allowing them to just sit back and watch the alcohol industry and marijuana advocates destroy each other. Sort of a passive “divide and conquer.”

In my view the beverage alcohol industry should really just stay out of the pot debate and focus on the things it does best—product innovation, logistical excellence and corporate citizenship. Let it play out organically. If it does become a legal reality nationwide, there’ll be room enough for everyone. There may even be cross-merchandising opportunities. After all, a cold, refreshing beer comes in handy when a munchies-stricken consumer needs something to help wash down that impulsively purchased tube of Pringles.

I’m joking, of course. Stay away from the pot, kids

Fernet-aissance

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: brewing

Ever get the feeling you’re being followed? That’s exactly the sense I’ve been getting recently from a certain herbal digestif that’s been popping up in my many travels for the past year. I’m talking about Fernet, the classic spirit whose flavor has been described as a cross between black licorice and minty-fresh mouthwash. It’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts, clues of which it seems to have planted, “Doctor Who”-style—at various points in space and time for me to see.

It started last year in Buenos Aires. Before I departed for South America, the spirit barely had been on my radar, little more than a curiosity that I’d see behind the bar at some taverns and Italian restaurants. But as I was researching local tipples in Argentina I discovered that it’s enormously popular there. Italian immigrants and their descendants comprise a significant portion of the Argentine population. They pretty much brought the spirit with them.

Several months later I was in San Francisco and there it was, just about everywhere I turned—not just in bars but in ads for Fernet Branca, the leading brand, strategically posted throughout the city (I never noticed the ads all the other times I’d been to San Francisco, so it supports my theory that some nefarious time-jumping force had retconned it into my personal chronology). It’s had quite the cult following there since pre-Prohibition (and during). I asked my cousin, Tom, a previous resident of the Fog City (now residing in Los Angeles), what the deal is with Fernet. “It’s a restaurant industry thing,” said Tom, an accomplished pastry chef. “Everyone in or around the restaurants in SF drinks it...Hang with any cook and you’ll wind up drinking some.”

And, last fall, when I was in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, a friend told me I just had to try Odell Brewing Co.’s porter aged in, you guessed it, Fernet barrels. The best way I can describe that combination is to ask you to imagine eating a handful of Andes Candies and Good ‘N’ Plenties at the same time. Not quite, but that’s about as close as I can get. But good on the Fort Collins, Colo.-based brewery for being at the forefront of a spirit-ual renaissance.

And a true renaissance it is, as noted by the folks at Sensient in last month’s issue detailing the flavor company’s 2014 Taste to Trend report: “Long seen in a small number of cocktails, Sensient researchers report that Fernet has taken the bar scene by storm. Bar patrons appreciate the vintage feel of classic cocktails, but with a contemporary spin.”

In light of that, I suspect that a great many consumers will be experiencing that “am I being followed?” sensation this year—all the way to the bar.

Customizing the Future

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Category: General Blogs

I got a call from CNBC to offer a few thoughts on the news that Coke was taking a 10 percent stake in Green Mountain for a cool $1.25 billion. It'll certainly give SodaStream a run for its money and it'll be interesting to see how Pepsi responds in the coming days/weeks. (Another deal in the near future, perhaps? Pepsi is mum).

"Gamechanger" is CNBC's word, not mine. I think it's a bit strong. The deal doesn't necessarily change the game. It does, however, make it a bit more fun to watch.

Here's a link to the segment:

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000243774

 

Brave Brew World

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: craft beer

I know I’ve written about this a bunch of times before, but every time I go abroad I am absolutely floored to discover just how much American craft brewers have been influencing the craft scenes—both established and burgeoning—around the world. And each time I’m in Europe, the extent to which that impact is felt always seems far greater than it was on my prior visit.

Just in the past two months, I returned to a trio of Western European markets known for their own venerable beer traditions. It was those same traditions that previously influenced craft brewers in the U.S. I’m talking about Belgium, Germany and the U.K.

In a column last year, I rhapsodized about the craft beer renaissance in London that very much mirrored the early days of the U.S. boom. I won’t spend too much time on that particular market, except to say that the American craft influence—what I like to call the “brewmerang effect,” wherein beer countries that had inspired small U.S. brewers are now home to a new generation of brewers inspired by the Yanks—seemed far more pronounced than my previous visit, just seven months prior.

Belgium was a true revelation. It had only been two years since my last visit, but the number of breweries making U.S.-inspired hop-forward beers seems to have increased exponentially in that time. They’re also producing styles like imperial stouts and porters and ramping up their whiskey barrel aging activities—including in cooperage that once housed that most American of spirits, bourbon.

American craft brewers have gotten quite adept at producing their own riff on classic Belgian styles. The Belgians are now returning the favor. Of course, it’s not just out of admiration. There’s a real commercial reason. Since about 60 percent of the output from independent Belgian breweries is exported, Belgian brewers now need to compete with the 2,600 or so brewers in a country that was only too recently treated as a punchline on the world brewing stage. That is far from being the case now. And, when it comes to the Belgian styles that American beer consumers have come to love via stateside craft producers, the Belgians might just be asserting themselves a little bit and reminding the world where those varieties were born.

Surely the same dynamic couldn’t be playing out in that other Western European bastion of centuries-old brewing heritage, the lager-centric home of the Reinheitsgebot, Germany. All I needed to do was step foot in the new Berlin gastropub Das Meisterstück to discover how wrong I was. The portrait of Brooklyn Brewery brew master Garrett Oliver on the wall of Das Meisterstück was a pretty good hint as to the types of delights available on tap and in bottles in the Berliner bar/restaurant. We’re not talking just pils and weissbier here. Imperial brown ales, IPAs, stouts, farmhouse ales and other decidedly non-German styles were on the menu—most of which were not imports, but were from new Deutschland breweries.
Europeans no longer find American beer a joke; in fact, U.S. brewers are having the last laugh.