Quest to Find Sacramento’s Beer

This piece is an idea I’ve floated for more than a year – it took a mind of its own and became something of a commentary and critique of the brewing region I live in… Sacramento. It’s what I believe to be an honest look at our recent history, focusing on how we got where we are and what I see as challenges and opportunities for every involved. Its a snoozer of a piece, 3,000 words long. There’s nothing mind-blowing or damning here, just my own thoughts. If you’re in the area and have feedback on the piece, by all means let me know. I must say strongly, these are my own thoughts and observations and they do not represent any affiliation with any of my employers or organizations. So, if you don’t like it, yell at me directly – my email is Rick [at] PacificBrewNews [dot] com.

Where Did We Come From?

I’ve written before about the recent and not-so-recent Sacramento brewing history – it’s been full of ups and downs, amazing peaks and tragic valleys. While the trend right now in the area is focused on very small startups (nano-breweries) and excessively hopped IPAs (doubles and triples and whatnot), this isn’t where we came from. I won’t rehash the demise of some of our great breweries, but instead will look at the stalwarts of our region’s beer culture.

The iconic Rubicon Brewing Company opened its doors in 1987. At the time there was another brewery in town, Hogshead, which was known by the few passionate beer drinkers that lived here at the time for its shoddy quality of product. Hogshead was a massive disappointment, run by a man name Jim Schlueter that came to the region with a very good brewing background that included time at Schlitz (he also started River City Brewing, which was a short-lived venture in Sacramento and wholly unrelated to the current River City Brewing on K Street). Hogshead was Schlueter’s second brewery in Sacramento and he was known to say “I’d rather brew by tongue than by computer.”  Well, without getting into too much detail, the beers brewed at Hogshead simply weren’t cutting it for the locals. When a group of homebrewers (members of the influential home brew club, Gold Country Brewers Association) saw bright, shiny fermentation tanks being installed at the corner of Capitol Ave and 20th Street the news spread quick – an honest-to-goodness brewery was coming to town!

Headed by Ed Brown and Phil Moeller Rubicon opened with a splash. According to the Brewers Almanac there were 49 breweries in America in 1987 – 13 of which were dubbed “Specialty Breweries”. (Stepping one step back, the beer-drinking public was only five years removed from Grant’s Pub’s opening, which was the nation’s first brewpub since prohibition [meaning, you could drink and eat onsite] – these were the earliest days of modern American craft beer.) Shortly after opening Rubicon made its mark on the national craft beer scene – winning back-to-back gold medals for its IPA when the category was first introduced at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 1989 and 1990. The little brewery on Capitol Ave. also assisted in the earliest production beers at Bear Republic and hosted many brewery interns that have gone on to have successful brewing careers of their own.

Today it’s easy to overlook Rubicon. While it’s still popular with the neighborhood crowd and is appreciated in out-of-town markets like San Diego and the Bay Area, the local beer community seems to have moved on in search for something fresher and hoppier – and that gets more discussion on Facebook, Twitter or a number of beer-related websites. More on the current state of Rubicon soon…

Shortly after Rubicon opened its doors Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch came on to the Sacramento scene with its brand of German-style lagers and wheat beers. Many things have changed since its opening in 1999, most notably the ownership – which is hard to diagram. The Davis location of the operation for years had a chummy relationship with the UC Davis brewing program, but  with the university’s opening of a pilot brewery on campus the relationship has changed slightly – although, there’s no doubt brewing students are finding their way to Sudwerk. Regardless, today Sudwerk has what I believe to be the most beautiful brewhouse in the region – but it’s a beast! They also make what I consider the best lagers in the region, overall (hard to beat Auburn Alehouse’s Gold Country Pilsner).

Not far from Rubicon today is Hoppy Brewing Company, which launched its first beer in 1994. The early beers were contract-brewed (not a dig, there’s a ton of great contract beer out there) and the earliest days of the brewing operation saw commercial success. Troy Paski, the founder and owner of Hoppy, eventually opened his own brewery in 1999, having survived a truly tumultuous period of crappy small batch beer produced by many around the nation that nearly sunk the entire industry. The Hoppy brand has seen modest success, but seems to have never captured the euphoric embrace of Rubicon.

1995 saw Sam Petersen open the first of two locations for Sacramento Brewing Company, a brewery that immediately made a splash on the beer scene. Peterson was a graduate of the American Brewers Guild and spent years in the hospitality industry – Sac Brew reflected this knowhow for years. Sam passed away in early 2007 and the company later traded hands. Without Petersen at the helm, and with the national economy spiraling out of control, Sacramento Brewing was forced to close its doors in late 2009 – but not before winning more awards and accolades than any other brewery in the area (including GABF and World Beer Cup honors).

Rounding out the 1990s in our local beer chapter was Beermann’s Beerwerks, which opened in 1999 and closed ten years later. Beermann’s was my first local brewery and much of my thoughts are skewed or biased by that fact. In its run, Beermann’s racked up a number of regional awards and appreciated modest successes locally – they were a staple for the tech community in Roseville for years (home to Hewlett Packard, Oracle, NEC and other high tech firms). Like many closures in this industry, the talent in the brewhouse moved on to discover new successes – most notably Brian Ford (Beermann’s founding brewer) who now owns the massively popular Auburn Alehouse. In 2014 another Beermann’s alum, Andy Klein, will open his own brewery in Roseville (Monk’s Cellar).

Before moving on to the next section, a quick word on the Gold Country Brewers Association, which was founded in 1982! In its hay-day the club won California home brew club of the year honors twice and has built a network of home brewing knowhow that is second-to-none. Through years of dysfunction and infighting, the club never realized its full potential to influence the region’s beer scene like we see in clubs like HAZE, DOZE or Maltose Falcons. There is still hope for the club, it has a healthy membership and some new blood. I mention this club because they, at one time, were great supporters and influencers of our local beer scene. In fact, Scott Cramlett (long-time brewmaster at Rubicon) was a young home brewer in the club when he was offered a gig at the brewery helping Phil out. The importance of our homebrew club cannot be overstated – seriously great talent here.

It would also be folly to not give a not to the enormous beer knowledge that rests between the ears of two regional heavyweights – Dr. Lewis at UC Davis at the Anheuser Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science, Charlie Bamforth. I’ve been told by most reliable sources that Dr. Lewis was around for the earliest days of our region’s craft beer boom – and I’ve seen him several times hosting national brewing legends. And of course, Charlie can be seen on TV and heard on the radio enjoying the fine beers created right here in the area – he’s a wonderful cheerleader for the region’s breweries.

All this is to say, we have a much more mature brewing scene than I believe we give ourselves credit for. We have the talent and knowhow that the vast majority of beer towns around the country don’t have – we’ve just never found a way to capitalize on that to fully become the beer city we ought to have been fifteen years ago.

Where We Are Now

Of the brewers mentioned above only one seems to be making moves in 2014 – Rubicon. With the opening of a large production facility in West Sacramento in 2013 they are poised to distribute to markets near and far. The brewery lacks focus in marketing and has avoided much change in the beers’ overall makeup. Where the market locally has moved to embrace more pale, light-bodied IPAs with an intense hop aroma, Rubicon has stuck to its guns in creating a clean, caramel-y sweet, medium-full bodied IPA that is sticky with hops in the finish. A great beer, no doubt, but seemingly dated by today’s standards. For the record, I am not suggesting any brewery chase trends – we see it far too often. Trends change. I love the perpetual focus on quality Rubicon has achieved. I would love to see Rubicon own their history and place in the California craft beer market in their PR campaigns and marketing materials – they have earned the right to be proud of their leadership in the industry. The other stuff, like pint glasses and whatnot, they’re just distractions to the overall quality and historical significance the brewery should be promoting.

Sudwerk today seems to be in a state of change, which is about ten years late if you ask me. The biggest change is in the branding, which has dropped the clumsy Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch name in favor of the friendlier Sudwerk Brewing Co. They are also coming out with some more hopped-up concoctions, trying to keep up with the Jones’. This is a major disappointment for me. The problem Sudwerk has experienced isn’t the beer, but the overall marketing and market presence (they don’t have one). I would love to see Sudwerk stick to their guns on the lagers and traditional beers, but hire an honest-to-goodness rep and create a name for itself the old-fashioned way (sorry, Facebook and Twitter are great for new brands, but lousy for rebranding purposes, I believe). Just like I would suggest to Rubicon, I believe Sudwerk can and should own their brand and their beer – it’s fantastic, refreshing, light and perfect for a hot summer’s day like we have in NorCal. Sure, create a snappy IPA that is dry and dripping with hops (their current version isn’t cutting it in the market), but let that not overshadow the beauty that is a well-crafted lager.

Where Rubicon and Sudwerk are in states of change, Hoppy seems stagnant. This is too bad, really, as there is no reason NOT to re-brand the dated labels and logos, along with that gawdawful website, while creating beers that will make a splash in the market. There is no doubt Hoppy’s got the talent – Ed’s been brewing for years and absolutely makes clean, easy-drinking beers. I wouldn’t worry about branding if the focus of Hoppy was solely selling drinks across the bar, but with a competent distributor like they have in Mussetter they could really blow it out to the water with a few substantial tweaks. Again, own the history and long-time presence in the area – tell your story in a concise, marketable fashion – or leave the telling to the new upstarts knocking on your door.

The New Generation

Where to begin? I’ve written before (here and in print) about the new guys in town over the past couple of years: Berryessa, Black Dragon, Bike Dog, Jackrabbit, Device, Roseville, Out of Bounds, New Helvetia, Mraz, Goat Hill, Knee Deep, Loomis Basin, Track 7, American River and even Auburn Alehouse. These represent the new wave of brewing in the region and each are clamoring to reach a thirsty audience – the same thirsty audience. Keep in mind we’re about to see Yolo Brewing, Twelve Rounds, Boneshaker and more open shop this year.

No doubting we will have a saturation issue in the region when it comes to beer shelves in bottle shops and grocery stores. This isn’t a bubble, but a paradigm shift. There is little doubt that our region can handle more community pubs that make and sell beer onsite, but the notion that every brewery in the area will have shelf space at the local bottle shop is a bit of a stretch. Yes, the standouts will always have room in the beer aisle, but the idea local bottle shop and bar owners buy just because it’s local is going to be challenged very soon.

Who’s doing it right? Clearly Knee Deep, Auburn Alehouse, Loomis Basin and Berryessa are the leaders of the pack right now. Track 7, American River and Mraz are making waves, too. The others are either too new to know, or just not making the grade at this time. Let’s explore a bit more.

For overall marketing and quality I think Auburn Alehouse is doing the best job right now. Yes, the beers are great, but what I really like is how focused they are in the packaging and marketing of the beer. Clean, easy to read, industrial looking labels adorn every bottle they have with names that for the most part play off the brewery’s historic nature. Brian Ford and crew are straight kicking ass.

Berryessa, for my money, is right behind Auburn in the way they have come to market. They don’t bottle beers, so labeling isn’t a factor, but the beers and passion they have are absolutely top-notch! Chris Miller, the brewmaster, has a serious love of hops and makes beer that is bold, brash and terrific. Bars around the region have embraced the hop-forward nature of the House IPA and Double Tap double IPA. The amber, saison and other beers in the stable never disappoint, either. And if you doubt the passion folks have for the brand, check out the brewery any given weekend. This place is killing it!

Knee Deep is clearly the brand beer geeks clamor for right now – the hopped up elixirs are just what the locals are looking for. That said, the branding is all over the place and the labels look clunky and unrefined; they haven’t really been able to put beer on tap locally (opting instead to build the bottle sales around the country until their new system comes online, which will happen very soon) and simply have too many beers in the Hoptologist vein. If you’re reading this I assume you’re a beer nerd and care little about branding and packaging (“it’s about the beer, man”). I hear ya. As far as the liquid goes, it’s great – phenomenal actually. A bit over the top in terms of ABV, but what isn’t these days? When your pale ale weighs in at 7%… yeah, they pack a punch. For the energy they put into the brewing and distribution, it would do them well to spend a few bucks on a marketing team to create consistent labels that look professional.

Loomis Basin seems to have taken a page from Brian Ford’s book in terms of labeling and branding – they’re clean, highlight the region’s agricultural past and are consistent. Add to that the overall quality of the beer and it’s easy to see this brewery doing well for years to come. The Gowan crew here will be in business for years to come if they can keep it up.

American River is the true rebel in the group, seemingly misunderstood by today’s hopped-up beer geek crowd. That said, I think David Mathis is situating his brewery in a way that reaches a much broader audience than you or I. Make no mistake, the American River beers are flawless. The Coloma Brown and Firebreak Red are among the best beers made in the entire region today and they’re finding homes in big name accounts like Buffalo Wild Wings for a reason – they’re balanced, full of flavor and oh-so-easy to drink while not being overly boozy or heavy. Their initial offering of the Sunrise IPA is perhaps the saddest failure I’ve seen around here for a while – and it wasn’t entirely Mathis’ fault. The IPA was of the “English” variety, which is an uphill battle in these parts, but was absolutely stunning! For my money, it was the best beer he made. But, with little education for the audience it was seen as inferior or underwhelming and was soon replaced with a traditional American IPA, SSB. While the American River brand may not “take off” in the uber-geeky corners of craft beer, it’s easy to see that the potential for overall growth is there for the places looking for craft beer that patrons can enjoy multiple glasses of without palate fatigue or concerning drunkenness.

On the Nano front, I can’t imagine a better story than Mraz. It’s difficult to lay out exactly what Mike Mraz did right in opening his little hole-in-the-wall brewery in El Dorado Hills, but his overhead is by far the smallest I’ve seen anywhere (with possible exceptions for Rapp or Seventh Sun in Florida). This shoe-string budget operation is putting out amazing beer and the plans for the future are brilliant. This is a beer geek’s joint, no doubt. The only issue they’ll have moving forward is the service, which can be clunky and green at times – it truly feels like a ma-n-pop place, for better or worse (Justin is a cool kid, easily distracted by friends and things going on around him, sometimes he forgets there are customers there looking for a bar experience, or guidance with the beer selection). When it comes to beer, however, this place is doing just fine. I look forward to seeing where Mike takes us in the years to come.

I have little doubt Out of Bounds can figure it out, they’re new and still learning their own system and audience, I’m sure. That said, as beautiful as the brewery is and as great as the service is, there is seemingly little motivation to push the beers out of the door. The addition of a sales rep and a well laid out plan for the area will benefit them greatly, especially as their beers improve. I’ve seen the labels, they’re tight and consistent. This place has real potential.

For the ‘most improved’ section in my made up awards I give you Track 7. Admit it, when they first opened there was initial fanfare and an underlying sense that the beers could be better. Well, fast forward two years and damn if they aren’t just that – better, all around! The Panic IPA right now is a darling of craft beer drinkers, for good reason. LERE, too. They’ve got a great logo they place prominently on all their products; they’re moving beer further away from home and the press they’re getting locally is fantastic. It means more to me to see a brewery improve itself than it does to see a brewer come out of the gate hitting home runs – and these guys have been building a better brand since the day they opened. Bravo. I can’t wait to see where they go in years to come.

Who Will Be Sacramento’s Brewery?

When Rhustaller first came to market they had stated aspirations of becoming “Sacramento’s Beer” and for a time I thought they had potential to realize that. Well, years later it seems the focus has all but disappeared. Sure, 1881 and Captain are great beers, but some time back proprietor JE Paino took his eye off the ball. The hop field project has taken on a mind of its own, which is not a good thing. The new beers are marginal at best. What has this cost the brand? Right now, actually, not much. JE still has the potential to reign in the beer production, focus on the flagship (which I believe is still 1881, right?) and let the other projects fade away. The hop fields are terrible, the beers they make are worse. Conceptually it doesn’t work – beer geeks look at the hops growing on the side of the freeway and wonder “do they taste like exhaust?” where casual beer drinkers have little understanding what they’re even looking at. JE has the connections, resources and knowhow to make the Rhustaller brand into something amazing – I hope he does.

No. For now Sacramento’s beer is still Rubicon IPA. Is it the best made in the area? No, probably not. For IPAs I’d grab the Gold Digger from Auburn Alehouse or House IPA from Berryessa, but these guys are still establishing their roots in the region – a region that is absolutely inundated with new beers and new brewery openings. As we move forward I think the local brewery that figures out quality of product, consistent marketing and a strategic plan for growth and distribution can call themselves Sacramento’s Beer – in five years it’ll be fun to see how far we’ve come.

Writer’s Note: I know I did not write about River City Brewing in the K Street Mall. It wasn’t initially on purpose, but by the time I noticed I chose to just let it roll. 

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Representing

Around the country it seems craft-centric beer joints are hosting “tap takeovers”, “pint nights” and “meet the brewer” events – all evenings geared toward promoting a brand or brewery. The events have a certain formula to them, one you have likely witnessed if you’ve been out for such an occasion: brewers or brewery reps show up, may give out a few trinkets, might buy a few beers for guests, likely has a drink or two for themselves before calling it a night. They’re pretty basic soft skills that seem intended to at least let the folks in attendance know the beer or brewery exists.

This known, there is an inherent problem in these events. Often the folks chatting it up with the reps are folks that already know the brands, or the reps. Too many times I have seen (and been party to, I fully admit) beer reps sit with a group of beer geeks as a chance to catch up and maybe tell stories about the industry. This, in itself, is not a problem, it has something of a ‘neutral consequence’ if you will – nobody is offended, but nobody really benefits either. The beers are sold, the customers come and more often than not all parties involved leave feeling good. However, I believe there is a better way to represent your brands at events like these.

With the recent roll outs of major brands like Goose Island and even Hop City Brewing (to a lesser degree) I have seen a better way to represent a brand. For those that don’t already know, Goose Island is now part of the InBev-Anheuser Busch family, whereas Hop City is owned by Canadian giant Moosehead. Craft-loyal drinkers may frown on the ownership of these brands, but that doesn’t mean they’re not successful and able to teach us a few things. Below are a few observations I’ve made with the “big boys” in how they “represent” their brands at events I’ve attended. This isn’t really a judgement on anyone, or even the industry as a whole (the craft beer industry, that is), but more a few areas that might help small brands better represent their product to the general public.

First, have a goal. For those that have taken any sort of business class or seminar, you’ll know that goals should be measurable – so don’t go in with a simple goal of giving trinkets away and having a good time. Do you want 100% of the people in the bar to try your beer? How many new faces should you interact with? How will you define success?

At the before-mentioned Goose Island event it was clear the reps had a 100% goal in mind, and they worked efficiently to make it happen. They purchased pitchers, provided small sampling glasses and made sure that everyone in the bar had at least a taste of the product they were representing. They also conversed casually with everyone they poured for – again, with great efficiency. They brought their own pitchers, paid for the beer up front and worked the entire room in just a couple of hours. It was effective, too. If you consider the cost of the night for them, they spent the equivalent of six or eight pints to make sure everyone in that room had a taste of their beer – just a taste, a few ounces and basic info on what the beer was about. At the end of the night the reps new they had a successful night, not because they had a good time, but because they achieved what they set out to do. It sounds simple, but I’ve never witnessed a small brand brewery work this way at a pint night before.

Second, come to work. Yes, as a bar manager it is awesome to sit and shoot the shit with some of my favorite brewers and beer reps. Yes, as a beer drinker I love it when a beer rep wants to buy me a beer. Yes, when the night is over and I’ve had good beer and good conversation, I feel great about the awesome event I just attended. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Remember, however, that these events aren’t for me – or for you – they’re for the brands that pay to be represented. If you’re a rep and you regularly attend Pint Nights, carve time to shake hands with the owner of the establishment, take time to personally acknowledge the staff behind the bar, but spend at least an equal amount of time ‘working the room’. Bring pitchers, pay to have them filled at the bar, and walk around pouring for the customers – answering silly questions about IBUs and if your beer tastes like Pliny. Just be sure to interact with as many folks as you can – it’s good for the brewery, it’s great for the bar and it is good for you. I can’t tell you how many customers remember just brief encounters with brewery reps – and they’re ALL POSITIVE! Shake hands, be warm, tell them how great your brewery is and let them know the product is available to them outside of this brief encounter (tip: don’t tell them to go to another bar, that’d be very poor behavior, but if you have cans or bottles at the local store – send ‘em that way).

Look, we all like to feel like we matter and right now the craft beer thing is crazy – yes, it’s just a job for many of you, but simply by representing a craft brewery you bring with you a sense of importance. You, in fact, are important. It may seem trivial, but your handshake and eye contact with the folks at the bar is kind of a big deal. No, you won’t be asked for an autograph, but your kindness will be remembered and likely shared with others in future conversations – and hopefully in the beer aisle.

Finally, you don’t need trinkets. I know there are a lot of new breweries that are cash-strapped and can’t afford things like glasses, stickers, coasters and whatnot. That is not a big deal. Really. If you come with your head up, eyes open and a good nature, you’ll find that folks just like good beer and nice people. Sure, there’ll be people that ask for little trinkets, but if you warmly express that you’re small company can’t afford such things right now – that your focus is on making good beer and getting it out to market, all will be well. That said, I do think you should budget a certain amount of money to get beer in people’s mouth – not pints, as mentioned above, but just a four-ounce taste that allows the person to experience your beer while engaging with you, personally.

This is clearly an exciting time in craft beer and right now it may seem easy to promote beer, but it seems that everyone in the industry knows that there is a bubble out there waiting to burst. Whether it does, or not, doesn’t really matter in this context. If we all better represent the industry and the brands we are associated with, I think we’ll be alright.

For all you reps out there day in and day out – you’re amazing people. Honestly. I hope this doesn’t seem critical of the work you do, I simply have a few observations that may make a difference or may not. Clearly this is not rocket science and clearly I didn’t create a new way of selling stuff – but if it’s just a reminder, that’s good enough for me. Cheers!

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The Beer Clean Glass

A lot has been mentioned on the shape of beer glassware the past many years, much of it I think has been misrepresented and largely misunderstood (that’s a whole other story thatI have touched on here). Beyond the shape of the glass I believe there is a more important issue to discuss – the proper handling of beer glassware. We might not know it, but we’ve all seen glasses full of beer that are certainly clean by Health Department standards, but definitely not “beer clean” (or “beer ready” for those on the MBAA side of things). These glasses show themselves clear as day – with bubbles that form and gather on the inside wall of the glass, caused by oils, soap residue, or dust that form little nucleation points inside the glass. Worse still, we have all seen glasses with lipstick on them – quite possibly the most atrocious thing one can see on a premium beer. In this brief piece I’ll highlight the causes of these issues and your best remedy as a beer-loving individual.

The ‘beer clean’ glass is important for several reasons. First, it promotes great head retention. Second, it is visually appealing – which we seem to undervalue as beer drinkers for some reason – we love the aroma and taste of beer, but somehow have become apathetic when it comes to its overall appearance. Finally, it maintains proper levels of carbonation in your beer. As we seek to elevate the status of beer beyond a fizzy yellow liquid, we ought to look at more than just the beer – we need to be concerned with the choice of glassware (at least a little) and we need to focus on the stunning beauty a well-poured beer should display.

Lipstick

What can I say, lipstick happens. As a bartender I have let glasses with lipstick (or lip gloss) pass to the customer. When I see it, even if the glass is half full, I discard the beer and set the glass aside for a proper cleaning. To be blunt, it is the duty of the bartender to make sure every glass is clean of someone else’s lips – and I can make excuses for why it happens occasionally, but bottom line is no matter the ‘why’ it is simply unacceptable. If you’re in the business of serving beer, it should be a top priority to make sure lipstick smeared glasses never make their way to the consumer. We have two easy ways to filter these glasses out – when unloading glassware from the racks to the shelves, and before pouring beer into the glass. During the unload stage, just lift the glasses up to the light and look for lips, if you have a lip smear just set aside and deal with it as time allows.

As passionate beer geeks I have seen many of you say what I have been guilty of saying myself, as a consumer – that the alcohol will kill anything harmful and that all is well with the beer. While that part may be accurate, we overlook one important item – it’s gross! We hear a lot of talk about “elevating beer” – well, this is where is starts. No passionate and self-respecting wine enthusiast would accept a world-class glass of wine smeared with someone else’s lips, and neither should we. Speak up, let the bar keeps know and demand that the beer you paid a premium for is worthy of a clean glass.

Scuff Marks

Perhaps the most common offender in the beer-clean glass discussion is the scuff marks inside a shaker glass that has been stacked. Stacking glassware where the exterior of one glass touches the interior of another glass is a common practice – it saves space and most often is never thought about twice. We ought to think about it. The scar marks inside the pint glass create small (or large) nucleation points that create bubbles on the wall – we’ve all seen it. While mostly fine, these little carbonation creators can also make a beer go flat quicker than we might like (granted, most of us seem to have no issue putting down a pint in short order). Perhaps that isn’t the important part. What is important, again, is the stated desire to ‘elevate beer’. If a restaurant or bar is charging $6, $7 or $8 dollars for a premium beer, it should look appealing – sexy, in fact! Presentation is huge in the way we look at food and drink – and sloppy bubbles on the glass looks just like that, sloppy. If you’re paying under $5 for a glass of beer, I assume you have fewer expectations. We all know, however, that the $5 pint of craft beer is growing more and more rare.

The solution here is quite simple – don’t stack your glasses in a way that scars the interior of your glass. If you need to stack glassware, try to do it in a way that doesn’t impact the inside of the glass.

Polishing Glassware

Bars the world over polish their glassware with a dedicated towel. In the wine world it is an important way to remove water marks, making the glass appear pristine. In the beer world, this is a practice that should be avoided, or at least modified. Using a towel to polish the inside of the glass will no doubt leave dust inside the glass, even if you don’t see it with your naked eye. This dust becomes apparent when you add beer, this is when you see bubbles form in nice, uniform patterns that tend to go up at a 45-degree angle. As a rule, and this is important for anything you serve, the inside of the glass belongs to your customer and the outside of the glass belongs to you – once the glassware is clean, you should never have reason to touch the inside of it… not with your hand, not with a towel. I’d generally add to this rule that the bottom exterior of the glass belongs to the barkeep. Yes, it is a good and necessary practice to polish the exterior of your glassware, removing finger prints and smudges, but just be sure to leave the inside of the glass alone. It should be obvious, but if you find debris on the interior of a glass that has already been washed, remove the debris and re-wash the glass.

Drying Glassware

This isn’t a practice I see a lot these days, but some folks out there still like to dry glassware with a towel. I suppose that’s all fine and good at a home setting, but not behind the bar. Let your glasses air dry, sure to have a drying rack or mat beneath the glass to allow for air flow. For starters, the towel you use to dry glassware is likely dirty and has no place on anyone’s glass. Secondly, much like the polishing practice listed above, you really just introduce dust to the interior of the glass.

Dedicated Beer Glass

This is one area I am hesitant to speak on, because much of it has to do with space and necessity, but if you’re selling premium beer for a premium price, you need to have dedicated glassware. As mentioned above, some bars treat their spirits and wine glasses different than we want our beer glasses treated. I know of a few places that use the same glassware for high-end wines and beer – which would be fine if they didn’t insist on polishing every piece of glassware inside and out. If you’ve made the investment to carry world-class beer, it at least deserves dedicated glassware that is beer clean/beer ready.

Closing Thoughts

In general, the Health Department standards for glassware washing will ensure that the glass you drink from in free from contaminants and things that may make you ill – rest assured, the glass is likely cleaner than it needs to be. That said, there is a difference between a clean glass and a ‘beer clean’ glass, and as the number of craft beer bars grows, so too does the need for this education.

If you’re a home bar drinker, getting your glasses beer clean may prove to be more challenging. I’d start by recommending that you use dedicated beer glassware – don’t use your beer glasses for coffee, or juice, or whatever. Next, I would recommend not hand-washing with dish soap – dish soap is terribly difficult to rinse out and will limit the beer’s ability to form a proper crown. I know friends that use straight hot water, and the brilliant beer mind that is Stan Hieronymus has a few recommendations of his own (baking soda, for instance). The biggest thing at home is to be sure everything you use to clean the glass is dedicated to glassware – that means towels, brushes, whatever – if it’s used to clean your beer glass, it’s only used to clean your beer glass.

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The Quest to Find Sacramento’s Beer

This piece is an idea I’ve floated for more than a year – it took a mind of its own and became something of a commentary and critique of the brewing region I live in… Sacramento. It’s what I believe to be an honest look at our recent history, focusing on how we got where we are and what I see as challenges and opportunities for every involved. Its a snoozer of a piece, 3,000 words long. There’s nothing mind-blowing or damning here, just my own thoughts. If you’re in the area and have feedback on the piece, by all means let me know. I must say strongly, these are my own thoughts and observations and they do not represent any affiliation with any of my employers or organizations. So, if you don’t like it, yell at me directly – my email is Rick [at] PacificBrewNews [dot] com.

Where Did We Come From?

I’ve written before about the recent and not-so-recent Sacramento brewing history – it’s been full of ups and downs, amazing peaks and tragic valleys. While the trend right now in the area is focused on very small startups (nano-breweries) and excessively hopped IPAs (doubles and triples and whatnot), this isn’t where we came from. I won’t rehash the demise of some of our great breweries, but instead will look at the stalwarts of our region’s beer culture.

The iconic Rubicon Brewing Company opened its doors in 1987. At the time there was another brewery in town, Hogshead, which was known by the few passionate beer drinkers that lived here at the time for its shoddy quality of product. Hogshead was a massive disappointment, run by a man name Jim Schlueter that came to the region with a very good brewing background that included time at Schlitz (he also started River City Brewing, which was a short-lived venture in Sacramento and wholly unrelated to the current River City Brewing on K Street). Hogshead was Schlueter’s second brewery in Sacramento and he was known to say “I’d rather brew by tongue than by computer.”  Well, without getting into too much detail, the beers brewed at Hogshead simply weren’t cutting it for the locals. When a group of homebrewers (members of the influential home brew club, Gold Country Brewers Association) saw bright, shiny fermentation tanks being installed at the corner of Capitol Ave and 20th Street the news spread quick – an honest-to-goodness brewery was coming to town!

Headed by Ed Brown and Phil Moeller Rubicon opened with a splash. According to the Brewers Almanac there were 49 breweries in America in 1987 – 13 of which were dubbed “Specialty Breweries”. (Stepping one step back, the beer-drinking public was only five years removed from Grant’s Pub’s opening, which was the nation’s first brewpub since prohibition [meaning, you could drink and eat onsite] – these were the earliest days of modern American craft beer.) Shortly after opening Rubicon made its mark on the national craft beer scene – winning back-to-back gold medals for its IPA when the category was first introduced at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 1989 and 1990. The little brewery on Capitol Ave. also assisted in the earliest production beers at Bear Republic and hosted many brewery interns that have gone on to have successful brewing careers of their own.

Today it’s easy to overlook Rubicon. While it’s still popular with the neighborhood crowd and is appreciated in out-of-town markets like San Diego and the Bay Area, the local beer community seems to have moved on in search for something fresher and hoppier – and that gets more discussion on Facebook, Twitter or a number of beer-related websites. More on the current state of Rubicon soon…

Shortly after Rubicon opened its doors Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch came on to the Sacramento scene with its brand of German-style lagers and wheat beers. Many things have changed since its opening in 1999, most notably the ownership – which is hard to diagram. The Davis location of the operation for years had a chummy relationship with the UC Davis brewing program, but  with the university’s opening of a pilot brewery on campus the relationship has changed slightly – although, there’s no doubt brewing students are finding their way to Sudwerk. Regardless, today Sudwerk has what I believe to be the most beautiful brewhouse in the region – but it’s a beast! They also make what I consider the best lagers in the region, overall (hard to beat Auburn Alehouse’s Gold Country Pilsner).

Not far from Rubicon today is Hoppy Brewing Company, which launched its first beer in 1994. The early beers were contract-brewed (not a dig, there’s a ton of great contract beer out there) and the earliest days of the brewing operation saw commercial success. Troy Paski, the founder and owner of Hoppy, eventually opened his own brewery in 1999, having survived a truly tumultuous period of crappy small batch beer produced by many around the nation that nearly sunk the entire industry. The Hoppy brand has seen modest success, but seems to have never captured the euphoric embrace of Rubicon.

1995 saw Sam Petersen open the first of two locations for Sacramento Brewing Company, a brewery that immediately made a splash on the beer scene. Peterson was a graduate of the American Brewers Guild and spent years in the hospitality industry – Sac Brew reflected this knowhow for years. Sam passed away in early 2007 and the company later traded hands. Without Petersen at the helm, and with the national economy spiraling out of control, Sacramento Brewing was forced to close its doors in late 2009 – but not before winning more awards and accolades than any other brewery in the area (including GABF and World Beer Cup honors).

Rounding out the 1990s in our local beer chapter was Beermann’s Beerwerks, which opened in 1999 and closed ten years later. Beermann’s was my first local brewery and much of my thoughts are skewed or biased by that fact. In its run, Beermann’s racked up a number of regional awards and appreciated modest successes locally – they were a staple for the tech community in Roseville for years (home to Hewlett Packard, Oracle, NEC and other high tech firms). Like many closures in this industry, the talent in the brewhouse moved on to discover new successes – most notably Brian Ford (Beermann’s founding brewer) who now owns the massively popular Auburn Alehouse. In 2014 another Beermann’s alum, Andy Klein, will open his own brewery in Roseville (Monk’s Cellar).

Before moving on to the next section, a quick word on the Gold Country Brewers Association, which was founded in 1982! In its hay-day the club won California home brew club of the year honors twice and has built a network of home brewing knowhow that is second-to-none. Through years of dysfunction and infighting, the club never realized its full potential to influence the region’s beer scene like we see in clubs like HAZE, DOZE or Maltose Falcons. There is still hope for the club, it has a healthy membership and some new blood. I mention this club because they, at one time, were great supporters and influencers of our local beer scene. In fact, Scott Cramlett (long-time brewmaster at Rubicon) was a young home brewer in the club when he was offered a gig at the brewery helping Phil out. The importance of our homebrew club cannot be overstated – seriously great talent here.

It would also be folly to not give a not to the enormous beer knowledge that rests between the ears of two regional heavyweights – Dr. Lewis at UC Davis at the Anheuser Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science, Charlie Bamforth. I’ve been told by most reliable sources that Dr. Lewis was around for the earliest days of our region’s craft beer boom – and I’ve seen him several times hosting national brewing legends. And of course, Charlie can be seen on TV and heard on the radio enjoying the fine beers created right here in the area – he’s a wonderful cheerleader for the region’s breweries.

All this is to say, we have a much more mature brewing scene than I believe we give ourselves credit for. We have the talent and knowhow that the vast majority of beer towns around the country don’t have – we’ve just never found a way to capitalize on that to fully become the beer city we ought to have been fifteen years ago.

Where We Are Now

Of the brewers mentioned above only one seems to be making moves in 2014 – Rubicon. With the opening of a large production facility in West Sacramento in 2013 they are poised to distribute to markets near and far. The brewery lacks focus in marketing and has avoided much change in the beers’ overall makeup. Where the market locally has moved to embrace more pale, light-bodied IPAs with an intense hop aroma, Rubicon has stuck to its guns in creating a clean, caramel-y sweet, medium-full bodied IPA that is sticky with hops in the finish. A great beer, no doubt, but seemingly dated by today’s standards. For the record, I am not suggesting any brewery chase trends – we see it far too often. Trends change. I love the perpetual focus on quality Rubicon has achieved. I would love to see Rubicon own their history and place in the California craft beer market in their PR campaigns and marketing materials – they have earned the right to be proud of their leadership in the industry. The other stuff, like pint glasses and whatnot, they’re just distractions to the overall quality and historical significance the brewery should be promoting.

Sudwerk today seems to be in a state of change, which is about ten years late if you ask me. The biggest change is in the branding, which has dropped the clumsy Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch name in favor of the friendlier Sudwerk Brewing Co. They are also coming out with some more hopped-up concoctions, trying to keep up with the Jones’. This is a major disappointment for me. The problem Sudwerk has experienced isn’t the beer, but the overall marketing and market presence (they don’t have one). I would love to see Sudwerk stick to their guns on the lagers and traditional beers, but hire an honest-to-goodness rep and create a name for itself the old-fashioned way (sorry, Facebook and Twitter are great for new brands, but lousy for rebranding purposes, I believe). Just like I would suggest to Rubicon, I believe Sudwerk can and should own their brand and their beer – it’s fantastic, refreshing, light and perfect for a hot summer’s day like we have in NorCal. Sure, create a snappy IPA that is dry and dripping with hops (their current version isn’t cutting it in the market), but let that not overshadow the beauty that is a well-crafted lager.

Where Rubicon and Sudwerk are in states of change, Hoppy seems stagnant. This is too bad, really, as there is no reason NOT to re-brand the dated labels and logos, along with that gawdawful website, while creating beers that will make a splash in the market. There is no doubt Hoppy’s got the talent – Ed’s been brewing for years and absolutely makes clean, easy-drinking beers. I wouldn’t worry about branding if the focus of Hoppy was solely selling drinks across the bar, but with a competent distributor like they have in Mussetter they could really blow it out to the water with a few substantial tweaks. Again, own the history and long-time presence in the area – tell your story in a concise, marketable fashion – or leave the telling to the new upstarts knocking on your door.

The New Generation

Where to begin? I’ve written before (here and in print) about the new guys in town over the past couple of years: Berryessa, Black Dragon, Bike Dog, Jackrabbit, Device, Roseville, Out of Bounds, New Helvetia, Mraz, Goat Hill, Knee Deep, Loomis Basin, Track 7, American River and even Auburn Alehouse. These represent the new wave of brewing in the region and each are clamoring to reach a thirsty audience – the same thirsty audience. Keep in mind we’re about to see Yolo Brewing, Twelve Rounds, Boneshaker and more open shop this year.

No doubting we will have a saturation issue in the region when it comes to beer shelves in bottle shops and grocery stores. This isn’t a bubble, but a paradigm shift. There is little doubt that our region can handle more community pubs that make and sell beer onsite, but the notion that every brewery in the area will have shelf space at the local bottle shop is a bit of a stretch. Yes, the standouts will always have room in the beer aisle, but the idea local bottle shop and bar owners buy just because it’s local is going to be challenged very soon.

Who’s doing it right? Clearly Knee Deep, Auburn Alehouse, Loomis Basin and Berryessa are the leaders of the pack right now. Track 7, American River and Mraz are making waves, too. The others are either too new to know, or just not making the grade at this time. Let’s explore a bit more.

For overall marketing and quality I think Auburn Alehouse is doing the best job right now. Yes, the beers are great, but what I really like is how focused they are in the packaging and marketing of the beer. Clean, easy to read, industrial looking labels adorn every bottle they have with names that for the most part play off the brewery’s historic nature. Brian Ford and crew are straight kicking ass.

Berryessa, for my money, is right behind Auburn in the way they have come to market. They don’t bottle beers, so labeling isn’t a factor, but the beers and passion they have are absolutely top-notch! Chris Miller, the brewmaster, has a serious love of hops and makes beer that is bold, brash and terrific. Bars around the region have embraced the hop-forward nature of the House IPA and Double Tap double IPA. The amber, saison and other beers in the stable never disappoint, either. And if you doubt the passion folks have for the brand, check out the brewery any given weekend. This place is killing it!

Knee Deep is clearly the brand beer geeks clamor for right now – the hopped up elixirs are just what the locals are looking for. That said, the branding is all over the place and the labels look clunky and unrefined; they haven’t really been able to put beer on tap locally (opting instead to build the bottle sales around the country until their new system comes online, which will happen very soon) and simply have too many beers in the Hoptologist vein. If you’re reading this I assume you’re a beer nerd and care little about branding and packaging (“it’s about the beer, man”). I hear ya. As far as the liquid goes, it’s great – phenomenal actually. A bit over the top in terms of ABV, but what isn’t these days? When your pale ale weighs in at 7%… yeah, they pack a punch. For the energy they put into the brewing and distribution, it would do them well to spend a few bucks on a marketing team to create consistent labels that look professional.

Loomis Basin seems to have taken a page from Brian Ford’s book in terms of labeling and branding – they’re clean, highlight the region’s agricultural past and are consistent. Add to that the overall quality of the beer and it’s easy to see this brewery doing well for years to come. The Gowan crew here will be in business for years to come if they can keep it up.

American River is the true rebel in the group, seemingly misunderstood by today’s hopped-up beer geek crowd. That said, I think David Mathis is situating his brewery in a way that reaches a much broader audience than you or I. Make no mistake, the American River beers are flawless. The Coloma Brown and Firebreak Red are among the best beers made in the entire region today and they’re finding homes in big name accounts like Buffalo Wild Wings for a reason – they’re balanced, full of flavor and oh-so-easy to drink while not being overly boozy or heavy. Their initial offering of the Sunrise IPA is perhaps the saddest failure I’ve seen around here for a while – and it wasn’t entirely Mathis’ fault. The IPA was of the “English” variety, which is an uphill battle in these parts, but was absolutely stunning! For my money, it was the best beer he made. But, with little education for the audience it was seen as inferior or underwhelming and was soon replaced with a traditional American IPA, SSB. While the American River brand may not “take off” in the uber-geeky corners of craft beer, it’s easy to see that the potential for overall growth is there for the places looking for craft beer that patrons can enjoy multiple glasses of without palate fatigue or concerning drunkenness.

On the Nano front, I can’t imagine a better story than Mraz. It’s difficult to lay out exactly what Mike Mraz did right in opening his little hole-in-the-wall brewery in El Dorado Hills, but his overhead is by far the smallest I’ve seen anywhere (with possible exceptions for Rapp or Seventh Sun in Florida). This shoe-string budget operation is putting out amazing beer and the plans for the future are brilliant. This is a beer geek’s joint, no doubt. The only issue they’ll have moving forward is the service, which can be clunky and green at times – it truly feels like a ma-n-pop place, for better or worse (Justin is a cool kid, easily distracted by friends and things going on around him, sometimes he forgets there are customers there looking for a bar experience, or guidance with the beer selection). When it comes to beer, however, this place is doing just fine. I look forward to seeing where Mike takes us in the years to come.

I have little doubt Out of Bounds can figure it out, they’re new and still learning their own system and audience, I’m sure. That said, as beautiful as the brewery is and as great as the service is, there is seemingly little motivation to push the beers out of the door. The addition of a sales rep and a well laid out plan for the area will benefit them greatly, especially as their beers improve. I’ve seen the labels, they’re tight and consistent. This place has real potential.

For the ‘most improved’ section in my made up awards I give you Track 7. Admit it, when they first opened there was initial fanfare and an underlying sense that the beers could be better. Well, fast forward two years and damn if they aren’t just that – better, all around! The Panic IPA right now is a darling of craft beer drinkers, for good reason. LERE, too. They’ve got a great logo they place prominently on all their products; they’re moving beer further away from home and the press they’re getting locally is fantastic. It means more to me to see a brewery improve itself than it does to see a brewer come out of the gate hitting home runs – and these guys have been building a better brand since the day they opened. Bravo. I can’t wait to see where they go in years to come.

Who Will Be Sacramento’s Brewery?

When Rhustaller first came to market they had stated aspirations of becoming “Sacramento’s Beer” and for a time I thought they had potential to realize that. Well, years later it seems the focus has all but disappeared. Sure, 1881 and Captain are great beers, but some time back proprietor JE Paino took his eye off the ball. The hop field project has taken on a mind of its own, which is not a good thing. The new beers are marginal at best. What has this cost the brand? Right now, actually, not much. JE still has the potential to reign in the beer production, focus on the flagship (which I believe is still 1881, right?) and let the other projects fade away. The hop fields are terrible, the beers they make are worse. Conceptually it doesn’t work – beer geeks look at the hops growing on the side of the freeway and wonder “do they taste like exhaust?” where casual beer drinkers have little understanding what they’re even looking at. JE has the connections, resources and knowhow to make the Rhustaller brand into something amazing – I hope he does.

No. For now Sacramento’s beer is still Rubicon IPA. Is it the best made in the area? No, probably not. For IPAs I’d grab the Gold Digger from Auburn Alehouse or House IPA from Berryessa, but these guys are still establishing their roots in the region – a region that is absolutely inundated with new beers and new brewery openings. As we move forward I think the local brewery that figures out quality of product, consistent marketing and a strategic plan for growth and distribution can call themselves Sacramento’s Beer – in five years it’ll be fun to see how far we’ve come.

Writer’s Note: I know I did not write about River City Brewing in the K Street Mall. It wasn’t initially on purpose, but by the time I noticed I chose to just let it roll. 

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Navel Gazing at its Best

An abundantly talented Celebrator Beer Newscolleague of mine, Brandon Hernández, has a new and thought-provoking (for people with blogs, which I believe is about 70% of people online) piece online discussing “Truth in beer reporting” – which is a call for transparency and honest reporting among beer journalists (go read it! Here’s the link again. It’s way better than the drivel you’re about to be exposed to). I don’t believe anyone can doubt the need ethics of honest reporting, the tricky part is knowing what the hell that means. In his piece, Hernández cites the common practice of “comp’d” beer for bloggers and writers alike. Let’s not fuss about this one, if you’re out to “review” a brewery, buy your own damned beer. If you’re there to simply report on the facts that the brewery exists, makes beer and has equipment of varying sizes, I don’t know that a free beer will skew your view of the reporting.

This is where the rub is, isn’t it? Are we, as bloggers and writers in the beer world, automatically “journalists”? A quick glance at what is being written suggests the answer is an emphatic “no”. Oh, but then it gets tricky. Let’s just run through a few quick highlights of the kinds of beer writing that exist online today.

Beer Reviews – I worked once for a large national beer magazine and a big part of my job was beer reviews. In this job the vast majority of beers were submitted to us by brewers, unsolicited. They sent us beer, we gave ‘em a fair shake, the world turned. Our tastings were blind and done with a panel, so the idea that the free beers would sway our scores was moot. That’s a whole hell of a lot different than the practice that is far too common where a blogger / beer writer sends brewers emails or calls asking for them to send beer IN EXCHANGE for a beer review. It’s that little difference that makes a world of difference. If you ask for compensation of any kind in return for press, that’s about as backwards as you can get. Especially if you’re not disclosing right up front that you’re reviewing a free beer.

Brewery Openings & Profiles – How many of these have you read in the past year or two? (god, how many have I written?) These follow a pretty base formula – you discuss the exterior a bit, mention the size of the brewery (kettle and fermentor sizes), talk about the tasting area if there is one and hopefully get a few nuggets about the trials of tribulations that accompany every brewery opening. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a few moments with the brewer for a sound bite or two. Now this is where things go sideways. If you’re just reporting on the opening, following the above-mentioned formula, you’ll often find conversations happen better over a beer. In this situation, it’s just a beer shared over stories. Now, if you cross over to another aspect of writing – say, cheerleading, then that beer could be an offense to your credibility. If your writing praises the quality of the beer, or overstates its significance (“this beer here is a game-changer in our community” type of thing), then the free beer absolutely should be disclosed. Why? Because free beer tastes better, duh! Trust me – when you’re sitting with a brewer, shooting the shit and enjoying the day – it’s a great friggin’ beer! Bring same beer home to a few friends, then watch how quickly that beer develops flaws.

Critiquing – If you’re goal is to cover your local beer scene, or create some sort of definitive guide to a regional beer culture, you’re moving from a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to the role of a critic. Critics are often misunderstood, especially in the food or service world (which breweries and bars are a part of). For starters, your critique of an establishment ought not be based on a sole experience. If you’re just passing through and want to document the facility, keep it in the “Profile” section of writing. The other thing legitimate reviewers do is pay for their own damn meals and drinks – often never exposing their identity or letting the staff know they are there on an official capacity. If you want to talk with the owner/ brewer, that’s cool. Introduce yourself, let them know who you write for, and know that you’ve ceased being an objective reviewer… for the most part. Yes, you can write objectively about places where people know your name, but the challenge becomes exponentially more difficult – especially if you’re hoping the owner, or business, succeeds or fails based on your knowledge of the players involved. Further, your critiques ought to be based on something measurable. If you’re not familiar at a base level with the style of beer, target audience, and proper brewing techniques, you should really shy away from anything over-arching – like saying a beer is “bad” or “not for my palate” or even “could use more hops”. There are many a beer I’ve had in the past year or so that were fantastic beers, but clearly not brewed to the stated style. There are also many beers out there made to style, but falling on the light end of every category (color, hops, malt, alcohol). Often this is done deliberately, to appeal to the local market, or based on a more traditional interpretation of the style – how often have you heard someone say about a 6.5% 50 IBU  IPA, “this is good, but drinks more like a Pale Ale than an IPA”. Perhaps the worst I’ve heard was multiple criticisms of an “English-style” IPA that it wasn’t ‘citrusy’ enough, that maybe some trendy American hop variety would make it better… oh dear lord, that was a great English IPA.

Where was I? Right, know your shit. So what if you didn’t like a beer that was properly made. So what if you think it “isn’t as good as Pliny”, or “used to be better” – is it a beer that is stylistically accurate, appealing to the brewer’s local and regular audience – does it pay the friggin bills?! If yes, then the brewer has done his or her job. Fantastic.

Oh yes, and critiquing should be done on your own dime… discretely. That’s the gist of this entire point.

Editorializing – Let’s assume you’re fairly plugged into your region’s craft beer scene, that most (if not all) brewery and craft beer bar owners know your name and that you have a good working knowledge of the business. At this point you’ll want to start playing the editorial game – and this right here is the most dangerous and contentious place to play, one I have tried to avoid at all costs, but feel I will get sucked into at any moment.

What do I mean?

What if you want to start “ranking” the best brewers in your region? What is your criteria, and how open should you be about your personal relationships with the top and bottom brewers on your list? Is it important to list that the favorite joint of yours often comps  you a beer with your meal? Is it valuable to state that you have a rocky relationship with the brewers at the bottom of your list? Do you believe these are even related? Ah, the can of worms…

To be sure, you had best have a measurable criteria for any sort of comparison between brewers that lists one better than another – and the list should be clearly spelled out, and removed of bias. Where bias exists, you absolutely need to address it clearly. (To be absolutely clear, I suck at this). What areas of quality can you measure? Beer, of course. Service. Pricing. Location. Hours. Selection. Cleanliness. All of those can be measured easily, without bias – just be certain to be consistent.

On “negative” reviews – I’m all for them. IF they are grounded in those measurable areas just listed, spelled out articulately and based on more than just your and your buddy’s opinion after one visit on a busy Saturday afternoon when the server didn’t have enough time to woo over your beer knowledge, or presumed importance. (Yeah, I remember you! You can read all about that on Yelp!)

So, all of this is to say that each and every one of us that writes about beer has our own voice and objectives. If you fancy yourself a reviewer, you ought to be forthright in addressing whether or not a beer reviewed was purchased or donated. If you’re simply covering an opening of a brewery/ bar, or profiling an establishment, by all means enjoy a beer poured by the owner and shoot the shit – and for anyone that thinks this isn’t journalism, know that some of country’s best and most celebrated journalists often enjoyed a drink or seven with the subjects they wrote about. If you see yourself as a critic, be discrete, pay for your tab and tip you server. If you choose to accept free meals or drinks, say so – even if it’s just a “I’d like to thank so-and-so for generously picking up our drinks”. Just spell it out. If you’re playing an editor for your region’s beer scene, if you begin calling out your perceived poor performers, then by all means possible list any bias you might have going in to such an endeavor and avoid any personal attacks, or criticisms that are not clearly measured out and fact-based. If you’re simply a blogger on a budget that loves free beer – god bless ya, we know who you are anyway – have fun with it.

Now, on ‘journalism’ – let’s face it, there are few of us that studied journalism in school. Here’s what I know, however. A) document your interviews and check your facts. B) You can be close to your subject without being influenced by your subject, but you must acknowledge that the possibility exists that your relationship may compromise your reporting, therefore. C) Disclose possible influences or biases in your writings. D) Yes, free shit can and often does influence your view on things. E) Again, however, if you acknowledge and disclose any and all gifts, you can hopefully maintain your truthiness. (Seriously, spell-check thinks “truthiness” is a word? What the…)

I fully admit when I got into this whole beer writing thing, I was clueless. Yes, I was a technical writer for years and could string together coherent sentences, but no way in hell could what I did early on be considered legitimate journalism (geebus, that was only seven years ago!). I can’t thank enough the patient magazine editors that have taught me just how little I know about writing and journalism. Hopefully I have taken those lessons to heart – hopefully the words I write are trustworthy, honest and transparent. Hopefully all of ours are.

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Sell Me a Beer – An Open Letter to Beer Sales Folk

In my day job behind the bar I encounter brewery reps and distributors pretty regularly, all hoping to sell me a beer. While distributors seem to have a handle on things, I’ve noticed more and more that our local brewery reps struggle with a few basic concepts. Now, it is entirely possible that I see a soft sell side of folks, maybe when they go to a more hostile place they turn up the heat (admittedly we’re a pretty soft sell for small-batch brewers, we rotate our taps and love good American beer). An exchange this week led me to think perhaps it was time to write a post of tips and tricks in the art of selling beer to a craft beer account. This is based solely on my observations, take ‘em or leave ‘em – I’m just trying to help. Please note: none of this will help you in higher-volume accounts like sports bars or chain retail accounts – for those you’ll most likely need a whole different strategy.

Own Your Brand

Of all the reps I’ve seen there is one that I remember above all. He represented a brand that was struggling to keep up in today’s craft beer scene, but the beer he sold was clean and delicious – honestly, a beer I quite enjoyed. The man walked in the front door, sort of shuffling his feet a bit, and made his way up to the bar where he asked for someone that he could sell beer to. What happened next made my jaw drop – he literally said “I doubt you’re interested in our brand”. Hello? I think what he meant was, “I know we’re not as cool as some of the other guys” or “I’m sorry to bother you with a brand that doesn’t get a lot of social media buzz” – in essence, “I’m sorry we’re not the trendy beer you’re looking for”.

For starters, who the hell says that? Second, even if you believe what you’re saying, you’re being paid to be proud of the product you’re selling me – own it! Tell me how clean your beer is. Tell me how great the history of your established brewery is. Remind me why it’s a good thing to not have another ‘extreme’ beer. Sell me your friggin’ beer! I tried to walk the poor sap through these hoops, but I doubt it sank in – he didn’t last long in his job, but how could he? He was clearly defeated, resigned to selling a great beer he just didn’t know how to promote… nearly ashamed that he represented a beer that was just good.

That’s a sad state of where our ‘craft’ beer scene is today. There are a few hot brands that everyone has convinced themselves that they need to try, leaving out a huge portion of the industry that simply make good, clean beer – and there’s something beautiful about these beers, by the way.

Do you represent a brand that was once popular? Do you have a brand that focuses on the traditional styles – lagers, ambers, browns? Do you not have a new billion-IBU triple IPA? Who the hell cares? Remind owners of bars that the vast majority of beer drinkers like a good lager, love a clean amber ale and have a soft spot for a traditional brown ale. It may not be the trendiest beer out there, but if it’s of any quality at all, I’m certain there’s an audience for it.

Know My Business

More recently I had a guy stop in “for lunch” and to chat me up a bit, this happens all the time and it’s wonderful. We talked and bullshitted a bit, then it was time for him to move along. As he was leaving he did what nearly every small brewery rep does, tells me what’s available from his brewery and asked if I wanted anything. This seems to be the standard soft sell technique.

Look, it doesn’t take but a few seconds to scan the list of available beers we have on at my work, we only have sixteen wonderful taps. A cursory observation should tell you we have a handful of IPAs and Double IPAs, a Wheat Beer, an Amber Ale, a Brown Ale, Porter/Stout, Lager and a few other common styles. Yes, they’re all great. Yes, we’re also picky – the liquid has to be great, regardless of the brand. Here’s an idea: sell me on one of those taps. You have an amber ale that we don’t already have on tap? Ask me what we’re putting on after that particular beer is gone, but don’t do it in a way that demeans anything we have on currently – that’s a major no-no that happens far too often, it’s a conversation stopper for me. It doesn’t need to be forceful; it can be inquisitive if you’re of the soft sell personality (which is common in the craft industry) – just ask me what we’re putting on after the amber ale. If I don’t know, then ask if we would be interested in your amber ale. It won’t be 100% successful, I promise you that, but you’ve opened a dialogue that doesn’t exist when you simply give me a list of available beers, you could actually be helping me out – which is a major plus for most people that haven’t thoroughly thought out the plans for each and every tap handle. Not all bar managers are the same, obviously, but it’s not a bad idea to start a conversation about a particular beer rather than leave me with a list of products I’ll have to remember down the road.

Know Your Product

Of the memorable experiences we’ve had with reps, this guy takes the cake on cluelessness. He came in on a random weekday to sell us a beer that was set to be released in the near future. The beer was similar to another beer they had in our rotation, so we asked for more info: he literally said to us that “[Beer A] is great, but [Beer B] is awesome.” Pressed for more info, he said that one beer was a little darker than the other, he thought. Pressed further, he finally admitted that he hasn’t actually tasted the beer, but it’s gonna be great.

Now look, I don’t expect every rep to know every last detail on every single beer in their portfolio, but holy shit… If you have an upcoming beer that is similar to a beer you already have, it might be a good idea to know what differentiates brand A from brand B, more than “it’s a little darker”. If you ask why this is important, keep in mind that taps are treated like real estate and why would a bar manager take up two valuable taps for beers from the same company that are very similar?

I sold beer for a while and know I wasn’t that good at it. I was the typical craft guy that did the super soft sell, knowing what I had to sell in my portfolio and hoping the bar manager cared enough to listen (that right there was pretty much the gist of my sales plan, which worked alarmingly well for this industry). It’s a tough business, facing rejection is a daily occurrence and with the current influx of small-batch brands, it’s just getting harder and harder to sell good beer. I wish I knew then what I know now. Please don’t take this as condemnation, but more a set of things to consider when selling to the next craft account. Further, I know too that craft bars and bottle shops are growing increasingly difficult to work with, there may well be 20 bars in town that want the beer you have only five kegs of. I get that and appreciate the way many of you handle  yourselves in the most professional and diplomatic way. Keep up the good work.

Cheers!

*Contrary to some popular belief, I do not own or even run a bar. I work with an amazing owner and great staff together, and together I feel we do a bang-up job. While this and other pieces are written in first-person, I do not mean to suggest that I am a sole decision maker at my work. Locals know this, I just want to make sure you do, too. 
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Own Your Bar

There are a lot of new craft beer bars popping up everywhere in America these days, a welcome addition for any beer loving local. That stated, there seems to be a growing number of craft bars that seem to love good liquid, but are unsure or unwilling to do what is necessary to ensure the beer and business is treated right. I’m short on time, so this can’t be exhaustive, but here are a few things I have seen that I want to get off my chest.

Own Your Taps

This is the only way I know how to express a number of related issues at craft bars around the country. Owning your taps means just that – take ownership of them! Maintain them – it is your bar and your responsibility to make sure ALL lines are cleaned and properly maintained. No, you don’t have to do the work yourself (although it’ll save you money in the long run), but you also can’t rely on the big distributors to care for lines that aren’t theirs – carrying products that aren’t theirs. If you carry local beers brewed by new/small brewers, they likely don’t have the time or capacity to clean the beer lines. You know what, that’s fine because that is not their job! You want clean beer lines? Make it happen, it’s the cost of doing business and if you’re business features these small brewers without distributors, then spend the bucks and get the lines cleaned as they should (every two weeks). If that’s too much work, then just stick with the beers sold by the distributors that will clean the lines as a service to you. Remember, just because the big guys clean lines does not mean that’s their job – they’re your lines.

Know Your ABVs

A disturbing trend I’ve seen lately is an obsession with high alcohol beers. In one case recently, I walked into an eatery at lunch that had sixteen taps – the lowest alcohol beer weighed in at an alarming 8%! Look, we all love a good stiff beer, but as a responsible bar owner/ manager you simply must embrace the better beers of average strength. Additionally, if you have a high-abv brew on tap, it is good business to put the beer in a glass smaller than 16-ounces. Remember, the goal of your establishment should not be to get your patrons drunk as quick as possible. For starters, you will actually sell less beer, but more importantly is good stewardship to be mindful of the community around you.

Stand By Your Brand

By brand I am referring to your business, not any particular brand of beer. To stand by that isn’t always easy, however. There are times when you will have to make a tough call and pull a beer off the line – be it because it’s flawed, or doesn’t move, or is simply undrinkable. You should be able to assess the quality of a beer when it is tapped, but if that fails you can easily see where issues may occur based on consumer feedback. If you choose to keep a bad beer on tap because you insist on getting your money’s worth, you run the risk of damaging your brand – something far more valuable than the profits on a single keg of beer.

There are a couple easy things you can do to ensure quality. First, as mentioned above, clean the lines religiously – this includes regular deep cleaning of faucets and couplers. Second, know the keg dates and style requirements related to age. If you have a pilsner (or other pale lager), pale ale or IPA that is more than 90 days old, you shouldn’t accept it. Of course there are styles that age gracefully, if you don’t know what they are then just make it a goal to never pour beer more than 90 days old. Finally, minimize time your kegs spend at high temperatures – you don’t want your beer warming up, that will increase the perceived age process and diminish the quality of your beer.

Just like the best brewers occasionally have to dump a batch of beer that got away, there will be times you’ll be well-served to simply write a keg of beer off. It’s good business.

Maintain Order

This is clearly the most difficult item on this to do list, maintaining control of your bar. It’s easy to cede control to employees, to regular customers and to your distributors – it often happens slow enough you don’t see it’s happened. When you opened your doors you likely had a list of rules, hopefully on paper, but at least in your head – things you said you didn’t want to have happen. Of course, priorities change and the realities of business often force subtle or drastic tweaks in your business plan. That’s not what I’m talking about. What you must avoid is to let others dictate your business – be it in the form of a certain brand loyalty, giveaways, or customers that feel overly entitled to your business (unruly behavior, demanding or simply dismissive to you and your staff – those that have the feel of someone owed something more than your gratitude and good service). This is very, very touchy because you need to always appreciate the loyalty of your customers, but you cannot yourself become beholden to them at the detriment of your business. Do you find yourself looking the other way when someone becomes rude or overtly intoxicated? Do you not check IDs when a regular brings in a young friend? Do you allow yourself to be talked out of a free beer at the chiding of someone you know by name? Balance here is key – we live in a world where an occasional free pint is good service, where we must embrace all sorts of people with all sorts of baggage and be grateful that they chose to spend their hard-earned cash at your establishment. That said, it’s imperative that you recognize these behaviors and know when you’re being generous and when you’re being had.

Be Your Own Person

Final note on this abbreviated post of more than 1,000 words – be comfortable with the bar and the customers you have. Does another bar in town have the newest triple-wet-hopped, dry-hopped, bourbon-barrel, imperial-double, sour IPA that everyone is talking about? Great. Who cares? Don’t feel the need to jump the shark or chase trends. For starters, these will never be your ‘money-makers’ – they’re one-off offerings that can bring in a few people, but won’t necessarily translate to new regulars (your bread and butter, so to speak). You should know more than anyone what your customers like and don’t like. If you’re a stout man and find your slowest movers are all stouts, it’s good sense to make a switch to a more popular style (assuming you have multiple stouts – you should always maintain at least one stout, one amber, a pale and a wheat beer in my opinion). Those switches make sense; you’re in the business to move beer. Just don’t become overly enamored with the hot, trendy beers of the day. If you can get them, great, but don’t worry if you don’t – your customers will always appreciate the good, clean beers you do have on tap.

I guess this is a point that requires some explanation. Hot, trendy beers are almost always allocated – that is, released on a limited basis and likely sold to customers with an established loyalty to the brewery that brewed the trendy beer. If you’re a new bar with no track record, expect to not have access to many of these limited release brews – not immediately at least. Instead, bring in the flagship or some year-round offering from said brewery, establish a relationship and then hopefully you’ll be in queue in short order the next time a trendy beer is released. It’s fool-hearted really to expect a brewery rep that has no track record with your business to reward you with a hard-to-find keg. It does happen, by the way, but that’s usually a nod from a rep that he/she appreciates the efforts you’ve put forth to open a bar that respects beer and the brewers that make it.

Last words: don’t be a dick. Don’t beat up distributor reps for not having everything you want, don’t call them names or threaten to talk to their boss because they can’t deliver on every small request you have for your bar. Don’t beat up on brewery reps for not having all the fancy signs and free shit you think you need to make a beer night memorable. Don’t be rude to the drivers that are delivering kegs. There are a lot of people that you rely on to make your bar successful – appreciate the efforts they all make and take a moment here and there to say thanks.

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The Re-Birth of Steam Beer

When you think of Steam Beer today, you’re most likely inclined to think of the beloved Anchor Steam out of San Francisco. This is for a few reasons, but first and foremost because the brewery trademarked the used of “Steam Beer” so other brewers cannot use the term. Make no mistake, however, that Steam Beer existed in California well before Anchor. In fact, Steam Beer was a California commodity from back in the gold rush days and could be found at any number of breweries that dotted the old time landscape.

In fact, Sacramento seemed to be home to a large-scale Steam Beer brewery at the turn of the 20th Century, as seen in the California State Board of Agriculture’s Statistical Report from 1901.

There are two large breweries in the city [Sacramento]. The City Brewery manufactures steam beer and in 1901 produced 50,000 barrels that were disposed of all over California Nevada and Oregon.

Today Steam Beer, or California Common as it is currently referred to, is a beloved product of fine quality. However, it was not always the case. In fact, looking back in literature from the late 1800s and early 1900s you could assume a few things about Steam Beer: 1) It was cheap and of poor quality; 2) It was associated with the rough-and-tumble of our society.  In fact, after reading a few texts of old, it seems like an effective way to describe a person of poor character was to point out his affinity for Steam Beer. Fact is, the oldest references I could find about the beer style had very little good to say – save for the fact it was cheap.

Here are a few excerpts from old text that mention Steam Beer – for your reading pleasure. We’ll start with this excerpt from – “A Poor American in Ireland & Scotland” by Ben Goodkind, published 1913.

We soon learned that the drinking water of Sacramento was not of good quality, for it is taken from the Sacramento River and is impure, therefore we took to drinking Sacramento steam beer straight and found it good.

That’s about as good as the reviews got for Steam Beer, which in this instance was made in Sacramento. How about the less savory mentions? This one is lifted from ”The Nerve of Blaze McGee” by Mortin Parker, published in Boy’s Life in May 1923.

Barlow’s drink dispensary occupied the corner. In days gone by, within the long barroom, had been fought gun duels innumerable. Cattlemen, rustlers, gamblers, Mexican smugglers had come and gone through those swinging-doors. Musty with age, the saloon had succumbed to the great drouth. “Lager” and “Steam Beer” had bleached out completely from the wooden sign over the door.

Then there’s this gem plucked from Overland Monthly and the Out West Magazine, published in 1868.

But he ruled merely by means of ability and not affection. Not like McManus was he admired. The latter was “the whole thing” in the saloons in the Barbary Coast, down where the worst beer flows, where they like everything big and strong and cheap-big schooners of steam beer, big men, big fleas, big watches, heavily gilded, and meals at ten cents, including a big dose of second-class burnt chicory, steaming hot, miscalled coffee.

Still more, this comes out of “Michael, Brother of Jerry” written by Jack London, of all people, in 1917.

In his desperation Daughtry hit upon an idea with which to get another schooner of steam beer. He did not like steam beer but it was cheaper than lager.

Regardless of the checkered history, Steam / California Common beer is of great importance in the overall history of California brewing. In fact, (and this is just an odd reference to me) the California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has an interesting tidbit related to the Type-23 Licence (Small Beer Manufacturer – I.E. craft brewers).

This license formerly related only to Steam beer. “Steam” beer is made by fermentation at cellar temperature rather than near freezing as is the case with other beers. It is
made using only one type of malt–malted barley. It contains no corn, rice or other cereal grains as regular
beers normally do. The method of carbonation is entirely natural and involves a process known as Krausening. This process requires taking beer which has been completely fermented and adding to it beer which is still fermenting. This causes a second fermentation to occur. The Krausening process in beer corresponds closely to the “bulk process” in making some types of sparkling wines.

 

Yes, it would appear that the craft brewery license in California was originally intended for Steam Beer brewers. By the way, how about that description of Steam Beer brewing? Not bad for government work.

Today Anchor Steam is rightfully considered a premium beer, and there are a growing number of terrific examples of the California Common style. It is telling to me just how far we have come in our brewing practices, not just here in California, but globally. Surely there were inferior beers throughout the land in the 19th Century – hell, there’s plenty around today, even with all of our scientific and educational advances. That said, I am truly happy (as a fan of Anchor Steam and the California Common style) that through the bad years this style was able to make it. We no longer associate this beer with anything negative – in fact, this style is the foundation of the modern American craft beer movement. That right there, that says a whole hell of a lot.

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The Fancy Beer Dilema

A recent post on AskMen.com that has made its Social Media rounds seems to call out craft beer – deeming it “fancy beer” and bemoaning the increasing complexity that is today’s beer scene. It’s an easy piece for craft beer enthusiasts to rip apart, an easy knee-jerk reaction would be to proclaim the virtues of craft beer over industrial brands – and that would not be entirely inappropriate. That said, the piece calls out some realities that craft beer bars (and bars that pepper in craft brands) have failed to deal with.

Let’s look at this fictional exchange – which really isn’t that fictional, if you’ve been paying attention.

“Bartender, what’s on tap?”
“There’s the list, next to you.”
“This one?”
“No, that’s the phone book. The big one there, next to it.”
“Ah. Yes. Hmm, I’ll have … uh …”
“Hey, pal. You gonna order a beer or you gonna read?”

This comical look at a bar exchange is pretty typical for those that work around craft beer. Yes, we beer enthusiasts have it made – we can be given a lengthy list of craft brands and – if it’s properly formatted – can quickly spot the beer we want (assuming the list is broken up by malty / hoppy / ale / lager / dark / pale / sour / wheat / whatever categories). That said, imagine you’ve been brought up on an Industrial beverage – what are you to do when presented with ten, fifteen or twenty ‘foreign’ brands? Sadly, most American craft beer bartenders have little patience to walk consumers through the list to find the most appropriate beer – and those with patience often have other customers to deal with. The end result is a crap shoot for customers and an immediate sense of insecurity in their order. So, if the beer comes without explanation, it can be overwhelming and – frankly – confusing. The end result is a justified frustration with the current state of beer. I get that.

The same rings true with coffee drinkers that just want ‘a damned cup of coffee’, unaware of the world’s coffee growing region’s and the differences in roasts that change the appearance, aroma and flavor of their cup of joe. Cheese, bread and even the meat counter have all become a place of confusion for the casual consumer. We are creatures of comfort, and we are increasingly being forced into deeper and more complex waters.

So, what is the answer? I suppose we could just say ‘fuck ‘em’ and move on. I mean, if people lack the curiosity and passion for what they consume, that’s their problem. Others will say we need more education – perhaps another new podcast or beer blog – that makes information accessible for all. Then there is the group that just says we push the consumers into deep water, that they’ll learn quickly that craft beer is inherently better beer and the world will magically right itself. All of these thoughts, I believe, have led us to where we are today – with a slightly larger base of beer enthusiasts, but with a greater percentage of anti-craft beer drinkers.

So, what to do…

Change the culture! Oh, shit, that’s easy! Right? Wait, what the hell does that mean?

For starters, ditch the beer bibles. Well, let’s step back… let’s reformat our beer bibles. If you have a tap house or restaurant with a load of beers available, go beyond the broad categories and list four or five ‘recommendations’ – staff picks, if you will. List a lager, a pale ale, amber ale, stout and wheat beer – the biggest and broadest buckets that may trigger a comfortable response from a consumer.

Second, learn to talk with the uninitiated. When a customer comes into a better beer establishment, they may (or may not) understand that Bud, Coors and Miller won’t be on tap. However, they won’t (likely) understand that Blue Moon, Shock Top and Stella won’t be available – I mean, to many people, those are ‘better beer’ options (fancy beers, if you will). Add to that list brands like Heineken, Newcastle, Corona (yes, seriously), Guinness and whatever beer you’ve stopped enjoying years ago. So, when someone walks in and asks for a Blue Moon, don’t shun them or hit them over the head for their ignorance – guide them positively to a similar product – without the attitude (“it’s like Blue Moon, only better” or “I used to like Guinness, before I found a real stout”). We beer geeks are comfortable saying “trust your palate”, but only when talking about one craft brand over another.

Finally, relax a little bit. We’re all in this together and when we’re going out to drink at a bar or tavern, we really just want a good drink (subjective) and a spot to unwind. I believe we’ll get a lot further in our promotion of craft beer if we are indeed promoters of craft beer – and promoters don’t diminish the tastes or likes of others, they are a positive face and message for that which they promote. This isn’t a war with craft beer drinkers fighting other beer drinkers. If anything, we’re all about supporting a craft product – embracing good liquid over clever marketing, substance over shine. With this attitude, the worst thing that’ll happen is we’ll all enjoy a glass of beer, without creating conflict with others looking to do the same damned thing.

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The Downside of Choice

A while back I listened to the ever-engaging Radiolab podcast on “Choice”. I mulled the show over quite a bit and figured a few points could easily cross over to beer – I mean, we have so many options these days, but experience relatively little growth in the marketplace as a whole. One would think, with the 2,000+ brewers we now have in this country, that craft brands were outpacing national brands (in a way, it is, but not in a way that can easily be summed up in a sentence). The lingering question I have from the show is this: do we have too many options? For many, the answer is clearly yes.

In his book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” author Barry Schwarz writes:

A large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So consumers decide not to decide, and don’t buy the product. Or if they do, the effort that the decision requires detracts from the enjoyment derived from the results. Also, a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one… why can’t people just ignore many or some of the options, and treat a 30-option array as if it were a 6-option array?

Choices abound, and this obviously isn’t just a beer-related phenomena – but we’ll certainly focus on beer here. From behind the bar I am faced with confused faces every day, folks looking up at a board of 16 taps – by gawly, they just want a beer! And before you assume these are your Bud/Coors/Miller drinkers, let me assure you they are not. Craft drinkers can’t be pigeonholed, clearly, there are those that love their amber ales, stouts, porters, pilsners and everything in between. They don’t know much beyond the fact that they like these styles, too. Why should they? They’re not your passionate beer geek, they just like a good beer – much like I am not an electronics nerd, I just need a phone / tv / whatever – so long as it works.

The Radiolab show mentioned a study that is apparently well-known, performed by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University. In this experiment, at a grocery store, she displayed jams for consumers to try and potentially purchase – some were given six choices, others were shown 30. Clearly those who like a good jam would be initially intrigued by the variety, but ultimately the plethora of jams led to fewer sales overall. Those presented with a handful of jams were far more likely to buy than those presented with many more options.

As beer retailers, distributors and reps we ought to take note of this. When displaying or promoting a brand or style of beer, or a variety of styles, it’s important to keep your options limited for casual consumers. I’ve talked about this a bit in an earlier post – if you’re at a bar with a load of options, always be ready to direct new consumers to one, two or three options – don’t just show them your beer bible and hope for the best. There’s a good reason to do this, too, from a retailer / distributor standpoint – customer satisfaction decreases with too many options. Again, as the quote above states, “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose”

This information is not just for retailers, by the way, but also for us beer geeks that love every beer style out there and love even more trying new beers. We’re the odd balls of this world, apparently. When introducing new faces to beer, maybe stick with the option you’re sure is the best fit based on your knowledge of the person. Let them enjoy that one style, don’t rush them to try similar or contrasting styles – and if they’re dissatisfied with the option you gave, be careful to not overwhelm them with everything you’ve got up your sleeve. As they become comfortable with the beer they enjoy, then maybe switch things up a bit.

All of this suggests to me that, as much as we beer geeks love new beers, it is in the best interest of craft brewers to establish and support a flagship brand – something more and more brewers seem to shy away from. This concept of too many choices is not about education, it’s human nature. We can’t just teach the general public to try every new beer we put out for them – at least we can’t expect them to appreciate it. As we grow as an industry, we must be aware – always aware – of the consumer habits that are universally true. Too many choices leads to less satisfaction. If you want to grow your brand, grow your flagship, be sure not to do it for short-term gains — and beer geeks are a finicky bunch, aren’t we?

In closing, we certainly ought to celebrate the news that America now has more than 2,000 breweries. We should also be mindful that, with all these options, we run the risk of overwhelming consumers and finding higher levels of dissatisfaction. Next time you’re in the grocery store, if they don’t have every new beer you wish they had – cut the beer manager some slack and understand that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For retailers – bartenders, sales folks – it can be a great advantage to have a huge selection, but know that beyond the physical work required to stock this inventory, we must have easily approachable and limited choices for those needing a quick transaction. We can do this in many ways, but it must start with the basic recognition that more is not always better when it comes to variety.

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