2012 was another year full of craft beer and brewery destinations. Here are a few of my thoughts
Dallas, Paonia, Colorado (Hop & Brew School), Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, Prescott, Sedona, Flagstaff, Moab (Utah), Maine (The Craft of Beer & Brewing Course), Japan (International Beer Competition, International Craft Beer Conference), St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Tampa and Sarasota Florida, Italy, Germany, areas have been a few destinations I’ve traveled through in the past 12 months.
Destinations are only markers – it’s the journey that matters. Along the way, of course, there have been a terrific menu of beers enjoyed, savored, discovered, considered and contemplated. At home it was a very long, hot, dry and enjoyably thirsty summer. In between all the travel and tending I did manage to brew many perfect homebrews; among them a Galaxy dry hopped session stout, two variations of German-style hoppy pils, a variation on a theme of Maerzen and an ordinary hoppy bitter.
Travel, brewing and drinking beer give me time to notice the world as it streams by. I’m kind of old school, preferring to watch what’s happening around me, rather than bend my head and bury my mind in my mobile device.
It’s been a period of encounters and mindful thoughts about the world of beer as it is today, where it came from and where it may possibly go. Here is a stream of thoughts I want to share:
- “Millennial” is a demographic box invented for those who have no time to really examine the nuances of any of the thousands of different market areas.
- American culture and attitudes are as diverse as the beers all generations prefer. I question anyone who meaningfully describes all of America’s 2,000+ breweries other than small, independent and diverse.
- The bigger you get, the more you must “generalize” the population and “push” thoughts into the market to actually change tastes and attitudes rather than having the ability to address individual markets.
- We don’t need a beer world where all we get are IPAs
- There will always be a place for small and room for the bigger.
- When beer distributors and retailers (pubs, restaurants, stores and bars) can’t take on any more brands, there will be newer beer distributors and retailers who will have a different business plan and who will address the needs of local businesses if larger distributors can’t handle the variety.
- Micro plantings of hops are happening all over the country. In a world of huge farms, small hop endeavors remind me of the spirit of early craft brewing pioneers and the challenges they faced. Imagine micro-sized mobile hop pickers, unique ideas for ways of gently drying hops, new markets and discouragement from some of the status quo.
- Tasting and discussing 90 different brands of beer in 5 days in Tokyo gave me one reason to pause. Amidst a stream of beer pleasure it’s worth contemplating the roots of where styles and beer culture originated. Where and how the founding craft brewing pioneers established beachheads of better beer options. Some of those originally brewed pale ales, porters and stouts were classics; balanced essays on what was to come. Rare are the brands that have not tweaked their formulations. They are gems worth seeking. Exploring the roots of styles with classic beers that have maintained the quality of their brands is a refreshing experience. Actually it’s sobering; well kind of sobering.
- The most novice of beer enthusiasts are perfectly capable of evaluating craft beer quality with minimal coaching. Don’t underestimate the American beer palate.
- There are very good reasons why homemade chocolate truffles are hands down better than anything you could buy in a shop. Sound familiar? Ask and I’ll tell you why.
- Japan small craft brewers have found their groove. A National Public Radio correspondent based in Tokyo interviews and asks me (in so many words), “…so why do you think Japan craft beers have improved so much in the past decade…” I was last in Japan in 1998. Now in 2012 I discover the dramatically increased quality and diversity. In the early days Japan entrepreneurs were only just embarking on their brewing education. Often, then, young German brewers brewed at the request of Japanese small companies. Japanese brewers have since increased their brewing skills dramatically. And perhaps more importantly are recognizing that integrating their own sense of Japanese culture into their brands, flavors and styles has created a growing demand for their beers. Pride, skill and a sense of local culture - in what you do is worth a lot.
- A refreshing sense of humor emerges from at least one Japanese craft brewed ale: Africa Pale Ale. “Africa Pale Ale?” we asked why? With a Japanese smile the bartend explains merrily pointing to an imaginary map of the world, “England here. India here. Africa here. Not enough hops to go all the way to India.” The beer was 10 out of 10!
- There are notably a lot of Japanese women involved in the Japanese craft beer enthusiasm and craft brewing community. Quite remarkable actually.
- Beer with food enjoyment will emerge in Japan with terrific success; it is a more natural culture for appreciating the interplay and nuances of food and beer.
- Craft beer from small and independent craft brewers continues to emerge in the most unlikely countries. We learn than the past dictator of North Korea is rumored to have had a fondness for beer and had built a microbrewery to have his personal beer made.
- Saint Louis: Even in the shadow of the largest brewing company in the world, small and independent American owned craft brewers are emerging and struggling to meet the demand and support of local beer enthusiasts. Whether being in the shadow or being a thousand miles from any shadow – for now it seems irrelevant to the success, growth and popularity of local brewers. Can this state of mind translate into a better U.S. economy? Despite the challenges and state of the economy and despite the increased cost of crafting products as a small company – one has to wonder while pausing over the quality of a beer you just paid a premium for.
- Where does the innovation begin to diminish? It seems never. Maple syrup aged in a whisky barrel. Aged syrup packaged and sold as a specialty product; but it doesn’t stop there – because there are craft brewers involved. The the “”mapled” oak barrel is destined to be used for aging whisky. Then the used whisky barrel (which you recall once aged maple syrup) now goes back to the brewery to make a maple-whisky barrel aged beer. And maybe when the staves are worn out, one might be able to use maple-whisky-beer barrel oak to smoke that brisket or pork shoulder? Those who laugh, lose.
- One of the most exquisitely balanced smoked beers I’ve ever had was at the American Homebrewers Assn. National Conference in the Seattle area. It happened at Homebrew Club night when the Boeing Homebrew Club grabbed and dragged me (willingly) over, “Charlie you got to try my beer…” OK. “Wow.” This wasn’t any ordinary smoked beer. It was smoked apple beer. No not smoked with apple wood. This was a well balanced gently hopped pale ale (or was it a lager?) with smoked apples added to the brew – no smoked malt. The result was a smoke character with little if any astringent smoked grain phenolics. I had another glassful, while the brewer excitedly added, “I also love to smoke squash [and pumpkins?] and add that to my brews.”
- Florida is no longer a craft beer desert. The Florida Brewers Guild is up and running to keep up with many brewery openings in 2012. A visit to the Tampa area revealed an exploding craft beer scene; humble beginnings and an unforgiving passion of some very well educated and skilled brewers. In Sarasota Darwin’s on 4th exposes the unsuspecting full houses to “Evolutionary Peruvian Cuisine” and a brewery on site. Hosting on the road James Beard dinners and scheduled to brew and cook at the Whitehouse in 2013. The hot summer heat can be beat with cold Florida-made craft beer.
Like I said in the beginning, place names are only markers, it’s the journey that really matters. I’m happy to report there is no end in sight.