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Let’s Talk Doom, Gloom and Craft Beer Bubbles

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popping bubble

In an industry with such monumental growth in recent years, it’s no wonder people are asking all sorts of questions these days. Interest for beer is at an all-time high, which means curiosity among enthusiasts is right there to match.

Lately, however, if people aren’t asking “what’s the next IPA?” it’s been something along the lines of “when do you think this bubble will burst?” The fate of beer is a popular armchair quarterback activity, often based on ideas of vanity stats like the number of breweries in the country instead of where things stand culturally and economically.

In 2011, there was fear of a bursting bubble because 2010 offered record growth for craft beer. Then again in 2012. And 2013. Of course in 2014. Definitely in 2015. And the song plays on.

Sometimes I feel this discussion is almost as ubiquitous as putting beer into cans.

At the core of each of those news stories – and most conversations I’ve had on the topic – is that people see the fast growth in overall number of US breweries, try to translate what that number means to them personally and assign a judgment based on their expectations and experiences, assuming things must be heading in a bad direction.

But what if Sam Calagione’s “bloodbath” of fallen craft brewers isn’t coming? That was a prediction made two years ago, after all.

Instead, what we’ve seen over the last five years is an influx of smartly created businesses increasing sales andprices – all the while met by demand.

My first thought when discussing a “bubble” isn’t necessarily an economic take, but a psychological one. The people who are often crying wolf on the impending crisis are typically media covering the industry. Not intense, card carrying Beer Nerds such as myself, but a traditional reporter with an average knowledge of beer who may care to ask questions about a bubble when local brewery numbers creep upward, like these examples for Los Angeles or Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Even when beer enthusiasts do ask about bubbles, it comes from our unique point of view, trying to combine what we know and see about our local and regional market with context of the national scene to create some mental conglomeration of impending doom.

On a whole, unfamiliar things make us more afraid than familiar ones, especially things that have been mythologized as “scary.” Discussions of past bubbles – whether the tech or metal or beer industries – adds to a mounting collection of references that tell us we should be wary weary when something grows fast. On top of that, add ongoing coverage asking about a bubble and why we should be worried and we begin to inch toward instructional fear acquisition, a social cost of fear, whether rational or not.

The process of layering public perception, often seen through continuous coverage or mention of our beer bubble, on top of mirroring the fear of others can lead to irrationality, hardly an uncommon attributefor humans in all aspects of life.

In an unrelated field, perhaps we can take a cue from Indiana University telecommunications professor Andrew Weaver: “When you leave it up someone’s imagination, we can conjure things that can frighten us much better or effectively than what most filmmakers can invent and put onscreen.”

The most common area from which people base their fear of a beer bubble comes from the rising number of breweries, but a vanity stat doesn’t tell the whole story. If we were to have a thousand regional breweries making 50,000 barrels a year coming online, that would most certainly sound like a problem. But it’s commonly the exact opposite.

According to estimates by the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), the beer industry added about 700 new breweries in 2015, which aligns with the Brewers Association’s estimate of about two breweries opening each day. As the NBWA’s Lester Jones points out, “starting small is the name of the game.”

Brewery counts by size 2015_Page_1

Most breweries entering the marketplace these days are small. “Nano” isn’t just a descriptive word for a brewery’s size, but it’s a trend in the industry.

From 2007 to 2015, the average barrel production for microbreweries (less than 15,000 barrels a year and selling at least 75 percent off-site) declined from 2,290 to 1,638 barrels, according to Brewers Association estimates. That can be because of factors like some breweries scaling up and leaving the “microbrewery” label behind, but is mostly driven by the entrance of small businesses.

Not only does staying small offer greater potential for business success based on scale and margins, but it’s simply a return to normalcy for America’s brewing industry. The neighborhood breweries of the 19th century have returned, offering intimacy and authenticityat a time when expectations among the beer drinking public are changing, especially craft beer lovers.

“Fears about the number of breweries are often overblown because people haven’t wrapped their head around what the new brewery business model really is for these businesses,” Brewers Association economist Bart Watson recently mentioned on the Business of Craft Beer podcast.

Small is increasingly playing a bigger role in beer. In the same conversation, Watson mentioned the contrast between craft brewery growth 20 years ago versus today. Back then, brewery geography was focused on places like college towns and urban areas. Now, with a reported 78 percent of drinking-age adults living within 10 miles of a brewery, those locations have diversified.

“You don’t get a stat like that unless you have breweries in the vast majority of communities around the country,” Watson said. Given that the popular business model of focusing on staying small and local has taken hold, “that’s something that a neighborhood in a city or small town can support,” he added.

One of the biggest differences between the beer industry’s “Shakeout” of 20 years ago and today is demand.

Overall, the rise in number of craft breweries simply parallels the increase of “craft” goods and services in other industries. This doesn’t just apply to the United States, but acts as a global movement as well. In one study looking at 118 countries, findings showed that “most regions and markets worldwide last year saw consumers trading up to higher value products across a wide range of categories.” There’s a rise of craft producers everywhere.

Most important, people are willing and able to pay for the increased amount of beer available in the marketplace. The high-end segment of beer – crafts and imports that cost more than $30 a case – is growing steadily, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Wages may need to grow a little faster, but overall consumer spending is healthy.

In terms of Brewers Association-defined “craft” beer, volume and dollar sales are up. Breweries charging $20 for a four-pack of New England IPA are selling out on a daily basis. While some beer is most certainly sitting on store shelves longer than before – an unfortunate side effect of the power and volume of choice – stale beer we find at our local bottle shop isn’t necessarily indicative of national trends.

Yet, at least.

Just remember, we’ve been sounding this alarm for some time. Even in 1994, when Portland, Maine was getting ready to open its fifth brewery, the end was nigh.

With any business system, there are always economic aspects to consider and worry over, but even though we only have to look back 20 years to see a busted bubble in the beer industry, we shouldn’t start pounding the alarm just yet. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not all threatening. It’s actually kind of exciting.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Header image via bioedge.org

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6 days ago
Started my week with a bubbling, thought-provoking article from @BryanDRoth
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The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds

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beer taps

Over on VinePair, writer Will Gordon recently shared an interesting game/exercise: creating “16 Perfect Taps” at the hypothetical bar of your dreams. It gained some traction among beer enthusiasts across social media as drinkers compiled their own lists picking out their favorite ales and lagers to take up each tap.

I thought an interesting twist might be to make the process a little more objective, from my point of view, by using the subjective ratings provided by beer lovers across the world.

Taking Will’s outline from his post, which breaks the tap list down into 16 categories, I sourced choices from four rating sites: RateBeer, Beer Advocate, BeerGraphs and Untappd. Each website offers its own proprietary ranking system, whether a formula devised by RateBeer and Beer Advocate or the “Beers Over Replacement” of BeerGraphs. Untappd, of course, has the bottle cap rating system.

Using that base, I picked the top-ranked beers from each site with the caveat that choices from RateBeer or BeerAdvocate needed to have at least 100 rankings. I have no interest in including a beer that is very highly rated, but has only been “checked in” a dozen times.

Let’s take a look at what we’ll be drinking…

Tap 1, House IPA

  • RateBeer: Tree House Julius
  • BeerAdvocate: Tree House Julius
  • BeerGraphs: Trillium Double Dry Hopped Congress Street IPA
  • Untappd: Tree House Julius

Tap 2, House Pale Ale

  • RateBeer: Three Floyds Zombie Dust
  • BeerAdvocate: Three Floyds Zombie Dust
  • BeerGraphs: Lagunitas Born Yesterday
  • Untappd: Toppling Goliath pseudoSue

Tap 3, House Saison

  • RateBeer: Hill Farmstead Ann
  • BeerAdvocate: Hill Farmstead Ann
  • BeerGraphs: Hill Farmstead Arthur
  • Untappd: Sante Adairius Rustic Ales West Ashley

Tap 4, House Cheapie*

  • RateBeer: Stone Imperial Russian Stout
  • BeerAdvocate: Founders Breakfast Stout
  • BeerGraphs: Alpine Nelson
  • Untappd: N/A

*A note about the “cheapie” category, which is supposed to represent cost efficient choices. Instead of going that road, I looked at each listing and found the highest ranked, widely available beer, in that order. It isn’t “cheap,” in terms of cost, but it is “cheap” in terms of time and effort to find. It also speaks to these kinds of ranking systems when these are the beers that fill that qualification. Of note: Untappd did not have such a beer in its top-ranked list, which only offers one page of 36 beers.

Tap 5, House Pilsner*

  • RateBeer: Heater Allen Pils
  • Beer Advocate: The Bruery Humulus Lager (American Double/Imperial Pilsner)
  • BeerGraphs: Hertog Jan Pilsener
  • Untappd: Other Half Grits ‘n’ Greens (American – Other)

*Each site had different categorizations for pilsner, including the style specific to countries of origin. Where possible, I focused on American pilsner, but added the site category for Beer Advocate and Untappd.

Tap 6, House Porter

  • RateBeer: Hill Farmstead Everett
  • BeerAdvocate: Funky Buddha Morning Wood
  • BeerGraphs: Funky Buddha Last Snow
  • Untappd: Funky Buddha Last Snow

Tap 7, House Blue Moon Alternative

  • RateBeer: Three Floyds Gumballhead
  • BeerAdvocate: Three Floyds Gumballhead
  • BeerGraphs: Three Floyds Gumballhead
  • Untappd: Perennial Artisan Ales Funky Wit Apricot

Tap 8, House Session Beer*

  • RateBeer: Hill Farmstead Walden
  • BeerAdvocate: Alpine Hoppy Birthday
  • BeerGraphs: Maine Beer 2
  • Untappd: Lawson’s Finest Liquids Super Session #2

*Let’s be honest. Considering the popularity and proliferation of IPAs, of course these picks would be session IPAs.

Tap 9, Rotating IPA*

  • RateBeer: Tree House Alter Ego
  • BeerAdvocate: The Alchemist Focal Banger
  • BeerGraphs: Trillium Hundred Thousand Trillion
  • Untappd: The Alchemist Focal Banger

*Each of these picks were the second-highest ranked IPA on each list.

Tap 10, Rotating IPA*

  • RateBeer: Hill Farmstead Susan
  • BeerAdvocate: Tree House Green
  • BeerGraphs: Tree House Curiosity Twenty Three
  • Untappd: Trillium Double Dry Hopped Congress Street

*Each of these picks were the third-highest ranked IPA on each list.

Tap 11, Rotating Local (N/A)

If you’re interested in local options for all 50 states, I recommend visiting each ranking site’s webpage for those options.

Tap 12, Rotating Lager*

RateBeer: Great Lakes Eliot Ness (Amber/Vienna)
BeerAdvocate: Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union
BeerGraphs: Carton Brewing Sit Down Son
Untappd: Jack’s Abby Triple Dry Hopped Hoponius Union (IPL)

*Like pilsner, each site had different categorizations for lager.

Tap 13, Rotating Legend

(N/A – for best “heritage” brands, I suggest checking out this listing and analysis)

Tap 14, Rotating Wild Card*

  • RateBeer: AleSmith IPA
  • BeerAdvocate: New England Brewing Fuzzy Baby Ducks IPA
  • BeerGraphs: Other Half Street Green
  • Untappd: Tree House Alter Ego

*The first wild card tap is just the fourth-highest ranked IPA. Because IPA, duh.

Tap 15, Rotating Wild Card*

  • RateBeer: Belgian Quad
  • BeerAdvocate: Imperial Stout
  • BeerGraphs: American Pale Ale (but really IPA)
  • Untappd: Imperial Stout

*Instead of a specific beer, this rotating tap reflects exactly what a rotation should be. I took the top-ranked style from each site to reflect what that kind of style would appear to be in my make believe bar. Westy 12 has long stood atop RateBeer’s rankings and Zombie Dust kills on BeerGraphs. All stouts all the time on Beer Advocate and especially Untappd, thanks to Bourbon County Brand Stout and all its variants.

Tap 16, Rotating Craft Superstar*

  • RateBeer: AleSmith
  • BeerAdvocate: Founders
  • BeerGraphs: Goose Island
  • Untappd: Goose Island

*Like the above wild card option, I picked the most prevalent, easily found brewery on each list. Untappd is skewed because of BCBS.

What does this all mean?

It all reflects an easily expected outcome, showing that what’s new is what’s powerful. Tree House and Trillium seem to be the darlings of the beer world at the moment, thanks to their IPAs, both regular and of the New England variety. Hill Farmstead isn’t going anywhere thanks to the hype and power the brewery wields over drinkers and ratings alike.

If anything, looking at this full list of beers makes me kind of sad, although not surprised, at the repetition of brands and what they represent. It feels like a whole lot of hegemony here, but that’s how things go in consumer driven industries.

What say you, dutiful reader?

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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46 days ago
And thanks to @BryanDRoth I'm now *very* thirsty!
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What We Mean When We Talk About the ‘Death’ of Flagship Beers

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Not once, but twice last week I read about a presumptive sweeping movement in the beer industry: the death of the flagship brand.

First, it was Chelsie over at Stouts and Stilettos, followed by Derek at Bear Flavored. Two different takes and perspectives on the cultural rejection of the notion that breweries, as a business, might have One Beer to Rule Them All.

Is there truth to this? Maybe a little, but no more than what we could glean from when Andy Crouch wrote about this same topic in 2012 :

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger and hipper string of beer relations.

Let’s for a moment assume we’ve spent the last four years witnessing the Death of the Flagship. The most important point we should talk about is addressing the audience for which “flagship” matters.

I am the 1 percent. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re the 1 percent, too. We are the ultimate minority, the beer enthusiast who thrives on promiscuity and badges on Untappd. We want to learn about new beers from new breweries to fill our portfolio of experiences, often at the risk of ignoring heritage brands or simply buying beer in “bulk,” opting for single servings instead of six-packs.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, there is still 99 percent of the beer drinking public out there for which that behavior is not the norm.

Then again, this topic is wildly complicated. What we need to be asking, then, is what do the numbers show? Are flagships dying? Maybe, but not like you think.

Addressing Current Flagships

Let’s be clear: breweries across the country have beers that not only are their flagships, but will continue to be the driving force for their overall business.

  • Allagash White is 80 percent of Allagash’s volume.
  • All Day IPA, which debuted in 2012 and accounted for 25 percent of Founders volume one year later, is more than 50 percent of volume now. The brand grew 175 percent in 2015.
  • Goose Island IPA grew more than 250 percent last year and became a $19 million brand.
  • Lagunitas IPA, which won’t stop growing, is the top-selling IPA in the country.
  • New Holland, which refocused its attention on its home Michigan market last year, saw jumps in its top performing brands Dragon’s Milk (+48 percent) and Mad Hatter (+20 percent) in 2015.
  • Bell’s, despite new brands like Oatsmobile and regular specialty releases, still relies on two beers for 79 percent of its volume.

bells sales breakdown

I could go on.

Flagship beers, as a staple and driving force, are not going anywhere. Just ask these guys. For businesses like Allagash, highlighted belowby Good Beer Hunting, one beer allows brewers to play and create the one-off Whales beer enthusiasts crave.

Many know them for their volume-leading witbier, and it’s the engine that powers the vehicle. But there’s also a robust, thriving, and innovative barrel and wild ale program that continues to churn out new and interesting beers. I ask Guarracino about the commitment to a program that’s surely a burden to maintain, from the ingredients to the time and space required for aging, the lower yields, and just generally so much work for so little beer, relatively speaking. “One percent of sales, 100% of soul,” he says.

Flailing Flagships

But even as iconic brands continue to sell, that doesn’t mean all is fine.

Per IRI, 15 of the top 30 craft brands showed sales decline in the first half of 2016, including names we all recognize:

  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  • New Belgium Fat Tire
  • Samuel Adams Boston Lager

Seeing these brands in this context may not come as a surprise, especially in the case of Sam Adams, which has been facing challenges to its sales and parent company Boston Beer’s identity for a couple years. According to Brewbound, Boston Lager sold more than $43 million in multi-outlet (grocery, Wal Mart, drug, etc.) sales in the first half of 2014. During the same time frame in 2016, it’s made $37.5 million.

Overall, six of the declining 15 brands have seen declines of 10 percent or more.

The New Flagship

You can’t address the idea of the Death of the Flagship without considering the biggest movement of the craft beer industry. While individual breweries may be more reliant on tap variety these days, that may also be due to the fact that as consumers, we’ve slowly moved to embrace the idea of a cultural flagship. SPOILER ALERT: it’s the IPA.

Of the top-15 selling new craft brands through May 1, eight were IPA and one was a hop-forward pale ale. This comes on the heels of 2015, when nine of the 10 top-selling craft brands were IPA.

Looking at the cross section of this trend with the breweries that are leading the charge of today’s top-sellers show how this need for hopped up beers impacts the companies who are suffering from declines in flagships once wildly popular. They’re just replacing what people may consider their “old” flagships with new ones.

Last year, Sierra Nevada (Hop Hunter and Nooner), New Belgium (Slow Ride) and Sam Adams (Rebel Rouser and Rebel Rider) were all responsible for some of the best-selling new brands.

Through that May 1 time frame this year, Sierra Nevada (Otra Vez), New Belgium (Citradelic and Glutiny) and Sam Adams (Rebel Grapefruit, Nitro Coffee Stout, Nitro White Ale and Nitro IPA) were again among the top new brands. A mix of IPAs and current trends (gose and nitro) far from Pale Ale, Fat Tire and Boston Lager, brands that continue to lead the charge, but don’t get as much attention than what’s shiny and new, perhaps.

Between 2010 and 2015, New Belgium and Sam Adams had three of the six best-selling new releases, all IPA. (Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter was 2015’s best if you discount Coney Island Hard Root Beer as a flavored malt beverage and not beer) This year’s top-selling brand through May 1: New Belgium’s Citradelic Tangerine IPA.

Two points of information worth noting here:

  1. The reason these breweries are repeating are because of size (they can produce a lot) and scope (they distribute to a lot of places). So while people obviously really like these products, their excellent performance is aided by wide availability.
  2. The year-to-year need for innovation and offering something new highlights how necessary it can be for these businesses to remain relevant at a time when variety and finding new experiences are at a premium.

“It’s a crowded marketplace,” Alarmist Brewing’s Gary Gulley said on a recent Good Beer Hunting podcast. “You need to evolve who you are and what you’re doing.”

Ten minutes later in the conversation, GBH host Michael Kiser added to the thought.

“If I’m a big brewery and I need to keep things moving, which is what larger companies have to do,” he said, “coming out with something that’s on trend, at a time when people want it, that’s going to soak up in the market, is the perfect place to be for larger brewery.”

All this emphasizes the reality of how and why the idea of a flagship may be waning. “New” is necessary and that means changes for what’s most popular on a yearly basis. Look at how the top-selling styles have adjusted in recent years with extra emphasis on this year’s rankings, as reported by IRI:

2007 2011 2014 2016
1 Pale Ale IPA IPA IPA
2 Seasonal Pale Ale Seasonal Seasonal
3 Amber Amber Pale Ale Variety
4 Amber Lager Amber Lager Variety Wheat
5 Wheat Wheat Amber Pale Ale

In 2016, IPA is set to have nearly a *third* of craft dollar sales in supermarkets and similar stores, followed by two styles that are defined by rotational flavors.

Filling Our Portfolio

One avenue from which to view the Death of Flagship is the Rise of Variety, something I’ve written about before and more recently pointed out in this post about Millennials, beer’s most pivotal demographic.

In IRI’s tracking of supermarket beer sales through May 1, the company noted several year-to-year gains in single packaged bottles. Twenty-two ounce bombers are up 6.8 percent, single 11 or 12-ounce bottles are up 22 percent and single 16 to 17 ounce bottles are up 67.6 percent in 2016. But also think about the bottle shops you visit, where setting out individual 12-ounce bottles or cans is the norm and grocery stores which have made the “mix a six” selection common.

Also, consider the buying behavior of Millennial beer drinkers:


And the fact craft beer drinkers consume a variety of brands:

other beer craft beer drinkers drink

According to Nielsen, the average number of alcohol drink brands in a craft beer drinker’s portfolio – across all kinds of alcohol – is 24, almost double the national average of 15. Interests range widely and for those who seek out unique flavor experiences, it only makes sense that these drinkers would be promiscuous in their selection of booze.

RIP Flagships?

Is there a definitive answer to this question? Are flagships dying? Or is it just our mentality toward them?

Probably a little of both.

Even as sales decline for classic brands, former flagships are just being replaced by *new* flagships or rotational ones. The variety that we seek and crave is matched by the innovation and creativity of the industry’s brewers, after all. Flagships act as a point of reference for a business. But when a diverse collection of brands is necessary and styles become more important, it makes sense all this would happen.

Or maybe it’s simply because we have thousands of options in front of us when we walk down the beer aisle and brand switching happens because it can.

I don’t think there’s a debate to be had about whether we need to write a eulogy for the idea of flagship beers – there’s too much proof that they not only exist but are pivotal for many breweries – but the psychology and expectation around such a thing has certainly changed. Our old flagships – the beers we personally choose to enjoy – are just becoming new ones. Life, death, rebirth.

(Note: Want to learn more about problems flagship beers face? Read my story “Life and Death of a Beer” in the latest issue of All About Beer magazine.)

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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62 days ago
The flagship is dead! Long live the flagship! More enlightening insights from @BryanDRoth
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Don’t Count Out the Reinheitsgebot! German Hops Find Fruit Flavor

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Likely by the growing presence in bottle shops and grocery stores, I’d venture a guess that even a casual beer fan has realized the influx of fruited IPAs in recent months. This time of year is always a boon to seasonal brand changes that showcase beers perfect for warmer months, with flavors often accompanied by the sweetness of grapefruit, orange and others.

But increasingly, brewers don’t have to solely rely on natural or artificial flavorings to boost the profile of their creation. Thanks to an evolution of hop varieties, all these fruity flavors can now be imparted in a beer without additional help – and consumers obviously appreciate the shift.

Sorting through what’s available in America, it makes sense that the U.S. is an epicenter of this change, especially given how American palates have shifted with expectation to beer and other alcohols.

But during my first day at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), I found another, perhaps unexpected, country embracing this change.

Among the first events at CBC was a hospitality suite hosted by the German and Hallertau Hop Growers Association, which shared seven beers made with different German hop varieties, including Mandarina Bavaria, Hallertau Blanc, Huell Melon and, most important, two new varieties known as Ariana and Calista. A highlight of the event was a lineup of about a dozen different parcels of German-grown hop cones, spread out across two tables, open for visitors to walk up, crush in their hands and experience first-hand the aromatic qualities of each.


At one end, where hardly anyone spent any time, were familiar names like Nugget, Opal, Tettnang and plain old Hallertau. “Smells like a German tradition,” an attendee next to me said as we worked our way down the line.

But at the other end of the lineup, faces lit up and conversations were had with grand hand gestures and deep descriptors hitting on specific flavors. This is where the five signature hops mentioned above resided. This is also where just about every person spent their time while sampling hops.

Peach, strawberry, melon, passion fruit, apricot, honey. All descriptors shared by passersby. No coincidence, said German Hop Growers’ Otmar Weingarten.

FullSizeRender (1)

“Our German growers can’t stand only on one leg,” he said, referencing the search for hops that move beyond basic bitterness or spicy notes. “We have to include flavor and aroma.”


Specifically, Otmar mentioned the growing German interest and influence from American craft beer and what that’s doing to drinkers and businesses in Germany. The lineup of beers, created by Eric Toft, head brewmaster and plant manager in the Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Bavaria, reflected that sentiment, even including a triple IPA.


While Ariana and Calista aren’t yet available in the U.S., they may be eventually, much like the slow appearance in recent years of the other three favorited hops from the event, Mandarina Bavaria, Hallertau Blanc, Huell Melon. During the hop event, a brewer from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing gushed about a pale ale being released this week relying heavily on Mandarina hops.

For as much change we’ve seen in American hops and what that means for breweries and drinkers, it’s exciting to see the impact extend beyond the boundaries of the East and West coasts.


Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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115 days ago
Exciting times to be a hophead! Thanks to @BryanDRoth for suffering through the event so we don't have to.
North Carolina USA
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Can You Hear a Good Beer?

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ear beer

The beer world has many ways to identify drinking “experts,” from BJCP or Cicerone certifications to some guy in Denmark who tastes thousands of beers a year. But the best part is no matter what your official qualifications may be, we all have some level of knowledge when it comes to tasting beer, even if our interest is solely left at that.

Last week offered a great conversation, as always, on the Beervana podcast, when Jeff Alworth and Patrick Emerson discussed the idea and process of how to taste beer. Through a blind taste test, the pair broke down how sight, smell and taste can impart characteristics of beer and how it can lead our own interpretation of the liquid.

But are those senses all we need to fully judge a beer?

In the 1930s, marketing pioneer Louis Cheskin coined the phrase “sensation transference” as a way to describe the phenomena of when a consumer has a unique reaction to a product based on an interpretation with their senses. For example, the more yellow the color of a 7UP package, the more lemon-like the soda may taste.

Naturally, sight and smell are powerful forces driving this idea, but in truth, all our senses play a part, even hearing. Think of the snap of a crisp potato chip or apple and how that plays into our perception of quality and freshness. Sound, just like other senses, has the ability to not only alter our preferences, but change a tasting experience altogether.

So if and when sound comes into play, is it impacting our perception of a beer or simply playing to our inherent biases?

In modern marketing, the idea of playing on our sense of hearing runs the gamut of products, from Mascara to vacuums or the famous “Snapple Pop.” Some people are so hell bent on the connection, they believe they can tell the difference between opening cans of Coke and Pepsi. The perception isn’t by accident.

“It’s looking at how auditory aspects of packaging can subliminally affect our perception of the product,” Cormac Neeson, the director of external affairs at can maker Crown Holdings, told the New Yorker. “And how then, we hope, we’d be able to maybe engineer those to give people an enhanced, improved experience through the packaging.”

In study after study, it’s been shown that the perception of quality can be strongly influenced by sound, something that starts when we pop a cap. Oddly enough, people are typically unaware of how sounds can affect the multisensory experience, but our ability to perceive certain attributes of liquid extends to a host of conditions, from temperature of water to carbonation.

beer pourMuch like the training of Pavlov’s dogs, who started salivating when audio cues alerted them to mealtime, distinct sounds of beverages – including beer – can elicit salivatory responses. We have been trained to recognize the pop of a cap and the “glug” of beer as it’s being poured into a glass as cues of forthcoming satisfaction, all leading up to a universal proclamation – that “ah” sound that almost involuntarily emits from our own vocal chords after the first sip.

Which only raises more questions. Do the auditory aspects of a beer impact our perception of each individual bottle or can? Or are we simply trained by the time we’re adults to connect these kinds of audio functions to quality?

The greatest commercial success story in this field belongs to Axe deodorant, which manipulated the sound of its aerosol sprays to be louder and more “masculine.” Are we far away from a “masculine” sounding package for beer? Or a fizz-enhancing can to assist carbonation?

Whatever the answer, it’s clear that to some extent, sounds impact our behavior and perceptions of beer.

Even the neck of Beck’s beer bottle – which holds the best-selling German beer in the world – was chosen for its audio supremacy. As sounds connected to freshness or quality in food are amplified, there is a correlation to quality.

(Of note, “a striking gurgling sound between 5 and 6 hertz” when a beer is poured is ideal.)

But before we jump off the deep end, the key point of all of this is sound is just one of several senses used to experience beer, even if it may be the “least” important. After all, taste isn’t even number one – it’s smell, from which we derive so much of our ability to pick out nuanced aspects of our beer, whether it be pine, citrus, tobacco or wet horse blanket.

It’s just that hiding behind our attempts to dissect each glass of beer is a lesser known influencer. Even if our American palates are trained to focus our nose and tongue on a bombardment of flavor, there’s still an itty bitty part of our biological wiring that pokes through, playing a part in every first impression.

We listen to our beer.

noda brewing-noda-jam session-beer-craft beer-beertography

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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132 days ago
Always fun to read what @BryanDRoth has to say about beer. Hoping no Axe Beer in our auditory future.
North Carolina USA
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Get Buzzed: Coffee is Ready to Take Over Your Pint Glass

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Joel Kodner used to rely on energy drinks to get him through the day. What spark he couldn’t muster on his own would come from a 12-ounce can of Red Bull or 8 ounces of Redline.

Until he came bean-to-face with a new obsession.

In 2014, the brewer at Florida’s Due South Brewing Co. traveled with coworkers to Fort Lauderdale’s Argyle Coffee Roasters, which focuses on specialty grade, single origin coffee beans. Through an afternoon of “cupping,” the coffee-specific slang for a tasting, Kodner experienced bold flavors he never would have expected from Maxwell House or Folgers as he sampled coffees made with beans from Costa Rica and Brazil.

“It blew my mind how these guys at Argyle talked like brewers,” Kodner said. “A few extra minutes of roasting or few degrees in brewing temperature can really change the flavor profile of the same exact bean.”

After sipping his way through various roasts, Kodner was hooked. He doesn’t rely on energy drinks anymore.

Joel Kodner, left, poses with Manny Carrera from Argyle Coffee Roasters. He’s holding a bag of coffee sold in the Due South Taproom from the same roast used in Java Mariana Trench, the coffee variant of the brewery’s yearly imperial stout.

Joel Kodner, left, poses with Manny Carrera from Argyle Coffee Roasters. He’s holding a bag of coffee sold in the Due South Taproom from the same roast used in Java Mariana Trench, the coffee variant of the brewery’s imperial stout.

At the time, Due South’s Cafe Olé Espresso Porter was Kodner’s favorite beer. The stage was set, but it was that trip and its serendipitous outcome that created a tighter attachment to the coffee-forward brew. Perhaps fittingly, you can probably draw a direct line from that experience to today, with Kodner acting as the man behind Twitter’s @TeamCoffeeBeer, a handle dedicated to championing all things its name suggests.

“Coffee beer is kind of my favorite thing right now,” Kodner said. “It’s definitely something that’s getting bigger.”

He’s not the only one thinking that way. From new brand rollouts to festivals celebrating all things coffee beer, the style is showing American drinkers that life exists beyond the hop. As the coffee industry trends upward alongside beer, a natural partnership is forming. The small beans most associated with travel mugs and morning commutes aren’t just an afterthought for beer lovers or brewers any more.

Grown on a lot in Costa Rica, single-origin beans are increasing interest in how coffee can be used in beer.

Grown on a lot in Costa Rica, single-origin beans are increasing interest in how coffee can be used in beer.

To get a sense of how far coffee beer has come in recent years, one barometer may be the Great American Beer Festival. In 2015, the top-five entered categories were the usual suspects: four versions of hop-forward beers, from session IPA to Imperial IPA, and the rare and beloved barrel-aged strong beer. The sixth-most entered category?

Coffee beer.

Of those six categories, coffee beer has seen the highest growth rate of entries in the last five years. While its 149 entries in 2015 is dwarfed by American IPA’s 336, it’s only a dozen behind American-style Pale Ale.

GABF styles chart

The bolded line with continuous upward trajectory is the coffee beer category. Click to enlarge.

It may be an apples to crab apples kind of comparison, but when pitting coffee beer’s rise against other highly popular categories, the percent growth of coffee beer entries can’t be ignored.

2011 2015 Growth Rate
American IPA 176 336 91%
Imperial IPA 102 208 103.9%
Wood and Barrel-aged Strong Beer 118 179 51.7%
Session IPA* N/A 161
American-style Pale Ale 105 160 52.4%
Coffee Beer 60 149 148.3%

(*Note that the “Session IPA” category was new in 2015.)

While those submitted coffee beers are undoubtedly dominated by porters and stouts – only two beers outside of those styles have medaled at GABF in the last five years – the traditional mixture of dark beer and dark beans doesn’t have an stranglehold on the style. Stouts and porters are naturally going to appear more often as the most commercially-viable options for packaged coffee beer brands, but look at individual breweries and what they’re serving and you’ll find more exotic offerings.

Costa Rican coffee beans drying in the sun.

Costa Rican coffee beans drying in the sun.

Maybe it’s Rogue Ales or Mikkeller’s coffee IPAs, or Schafly’s Double Bean Blonde, or Old Town’s Warp Speed Coffee Pale Ale, or even Sixpoint’s C.R.E.A.M.

Despite how traditional the mixture of coffee and some beer styles may be, the truth is there are no limits, and it’s catching on fast.

“There are many newer breweries looking to emulate the use of ingredients in creative ways who have been inspired by great breweries that have existed for a long time,” said Paul Schneider, brewer at Napperville, Illinois’ Solemn Oath Brewery, which made about 30 different coffee beers in 2015. “There’s a feedback loop in craft beer of pursuing processes and ingredients that are new to the territory and this is a piece of that.”

Pivotal to this growth, Schneider said, is the rise of coffee roasters alongside craft breweries. While historical data of roasters is hard to come by, one estimate has today’s industry at 1,200 roasters spread across the U.S. However, it’s easier to show American interest in an artisan cup of coffee. The number of “specialty” coffee shops in the U.S. went from 3,000 in 1993 to nearly 30,000 by 2013.

While coffee drinkers are showing greater appreciation for carefully created cups of Joe, the unique attributes crafted from the beans are showing up in beer, too. For Schneider, that means partnering with nearby Intelligentsia Coffee to make witbiers, IPAs and Belgian dubbels that pull flavors from beans mimicking papaya, mango, lemongrass, lime and more.

“I love challenging people’s conceptions of what coffee is and what coffee beer can be,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot of ground that hasn’t been tested yet.”

One of the many coffee beers made at Solemn Oath is this coffee milk stout with sweet orange peel.

One of the many coffee beers made at Solemn Oath is this coffee milk stout with sweet orange peel.

His guess – and that of others – is that the exploration and interest in what can be done with coffee and beer is far from its peak. One of the biggest reasons why, Schneider said, was because coffee and beer share fans. From their agricultural roots to artisanal nature and the ability to make both at home, aspects of each culture overlap in an ability to capture and captivate drinkers. Trends we see in one industry may very well apply to the other.

For example, similar to the rise of craft beer and the decline of macro options, the National Coffee Association found that consumption of gourmet coffee went up to 34 percent in 2014 as “non-gourmet” fell to 35 percent. Millennials are leading the charge, just like in beer, and overall, people are willing to pay more for better quality coffee, just like a flavorful pint of beer.

A certain DIY nature also connects the two. As the record number of homebrewers marches upward, so too does a focus of at-home specialty coffee, led by high-tech machinery.

Mostly, it all showcases that interest is skyrocketing for coffee, beer and wherever the two may meet.

uppers and downers-1

Coffee and beer come together at the Uppers & Downers Festival of Coffee Beers, a concept created by Michael Kiser and World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey.

“When you’re around people who have a passion for something, that’s a contagious thing,” said Michael Kiser, founder of Good Beer Hunting, who, along with World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey, created coffee beer festival Uppers & Downers. “You can either resist and laugh them off as fools, or you recognize something in yourself.”

There’s also flavor to consider. More than ever, beer drinkers are seeking out products that provide intense sensory experiences. Just look at the rise of the new, aroma-focused IPA or the rapid increase of sweetened alcoholic options. Coffee, with its unmistakable taste and smell, is the perfect ingredient to add a jolt of excitement to just about any style. Even a coffee Berliner weisse can be found at New York City’s Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co.

“For a long time, most coffee beers kind of sucked,” Kiser said. “Nobody was making a beer with coffee in mind. They were making beer with coffee flavor in mind.”

But that’s changing.

Crowds at Chicago's Uppers & Downers event.

Crowds at Chicago’s Uppers & Downers event.

This February, about 1,200 coffee beer fans gathered in Chicago for the latest Uppers & Downers event, which partnered those from the beer and coffee industries to produce three varieties of styles:

  • Roasty Toasty – “traditional” coffee beers like porters and stouts.
  • Light Bright – a focus on goldens, pales, IPAs to highlight lesser known flavors of coffee, such as citrus and other fruits.
  • Culture Clash – Ciders, saisons and sour beers. Its description reads, “You’re not ready.”

Among some of the favorites from the festival, all of which include coffee, Kiser pointed out Whiner Beer Co.’s sour saison, Angry Orchard’s bourbon barrel-aged cider, 5 Rabbit’s Cascara Beeliner wiesse and three variations of Solemn Oath’s Muerte Double IPA.

Other coffee beer festivals have taken hold, too, like the Northwest Coffee Beer Invitational or the Baker’s Dozen Coffee Beer & Doughnut Festival. It may sound niche at the moment, but events don’t sell tickets and tokens unless there’s a strong interest, let alone do it for years in a row. At Schneider’s Solemn Oath, anniversary parties are an excuse to break out specialty brews, which usually includes six to eight coffee-focused beers.

“The longest lines are always for our barrel-aged and coffee beers,” he noted.

So where does the style go from here? Schneider believes that as new coffee roasters continue to pop up across the country, brewers will find themselves flocking to the businesses not just as an excuse for collaboration, but to learn about how coffee acts as an ingredient, not just a flavor.

In the same vein, Kiser admits that progress is being made in how the beer industry thinks about coffee. But it’s not just about getting drinkers and brewers excited about coffee beer as much as it’s about creating a better understanding of coffee and what it can do for beer.

“I’m going to be a little bummed out if the conversation gets here and it’s just ho-hum coffee stouts,” he said. “That would miss the whole point.”

From the looks of it, Kiser shouldn’t have to worry too much. Even though spring and summer may put some brands into hibernation during warmer months, breweries continue to make coffee beers at a record pace and from the looks of it, people are happy to fill their pint glasses with them all the same.

Just ask Kodner and his growing members of Team Coffee Beer.

“These beers can have an incredible new character that goes beyond malt and roastiness,” Kodner said. “It’s the combination of two of the most popular drinks in America. It’s the best of both worlds.”

coffee and beer

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Additional photos courtesy of Eva Deitch for Good Beer Hunting, Solemn Oath Brewery and Joel Kodner.

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152 days ago
And there goes my "niche" beer additive thanks to @BryanDRoth ;-)
North Carolina USA
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