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How Best to Grow Craft?

The Wall 'O Beer at the amazing Sunset Tap and Grill in Boston

The Wall ‘O Beer at the amazing Sunset Tap and Grill in Boston. How do we get more places like that here?

A couple weeks ago, in response to my 2012 overview post (here), loyal reader Dave Graham offered a lengthy comment to the article, which you can read here (the link is not directly to his comment, but to the comments generally. It is the last – bottom – comment posted as of the time of writing). In it he  offers some criticism of the recent beer bars that have opened and the track record of Alberta’s craft breweries. His thoughts are perfectly reasonable and something I have heard often before.

He also takes me to task in a constructive, friendly way (I hope it is friendly) about my approach to talking about the prairie craft beer scene. I try to respond to as many comments as possible on this site, and initially was going to write a reply right away. But then I got thinking about his argument, and decided to ponder it a bit further. Finally I decided a post was in order, not to respond to Dave per se, but to address the broader point I think he is trying to make.

In summarized form, this is how I interpret his point. He argues that I am too booster-ish when I discuss Alberta breweries and establishments, and that I am not challenging the local industry enough to keep striving for higher standards. His core criticism is found in this quote:

“…your unwillingness to challenge mediocre brews and establishments isn’t helping advance the beer scene in Alberta. You rarely offer constructive criticism of any of the local breweries, and pooh-pooh lazy tap lists such as those offered at Underground and MKT by calling them decent. All this accomplishes is to promote complacency; if the resident beer aficionado thinks it’s OK, then why bother improving? There’s nothing wrong with lighting a fire under people’s asses, pushing them to do better, and calling someone out when they’ve mailed in another ho-hum, uninspired effort. If you’re not going to hold the Alberta beer scene accountable, who will?”

I have read this part of the comment many times in the last few days. And I think it deserves a serious and thoughtful response, which I will try to do. First, however, I just want to quickly note that I disagree with his evaluation of the Underground’s tap list. It is far from lazy. It is imperfect, sure. But that is mostly an issue of what is available in the province – not a lack of effort by the owners. They have come to me a couple of times to give them feedback on their list, and I think they are working quite hard to respond to what their customers are asking for. But I recognize that was not Dave’s main point. I also think he might be unnecessarily harsh in his assessment of local beer. Some very good beer is made in this region; I respect they may not live up to his hopes – and that is fair – but personally I don’t find it hard to get a good pint of regional craft beer. But this is not the main point, either, so I will move on.

I acknowledge I am not quick to use the space in my columns or this website to be critical of regional craft breweries. There are three reasons for this. First, it is a decision on my part not to fill the airwaves/ magazine pages/internet ether with negative comments about small local companies who are doing an honourable thing – making honest craft beer. That doesn’t mean I won’t chastise them for mis-stepping or offer a tepid opinion on a so-so beer. And it certainly doesn’t mean letting them get away with a lack of integrity (which, so far, hasn’t really been an issue). It just means I see no real value in writing a column saying how X beer is not as good as that one I had in Boston or Brussels or Montreal. I don’t believe that helps build craft beer locally (a point I will return to). What I do promise – always – is that the words I type reflect my honest opinion.

Second, I am a strong – almost fanatical – believer that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (to certain limits). I am not here to judge other people’s beer choices. My mission is to offer information, educate and gently prod in the right direction. Not everyone loves Green Flash or Mikkeller; even among beer geeks opinions differ. For me, that means that one person’s disappointing IPA is another person’s great beer. Which, logically, means my job becomes one of describing, offering some assessment of what is going on, and letting the reader decide whether that is their kind of beer. Sure, from time to time, I blurt out an adjective-filled negative rant against a beer, but I am human after all. Plus, I suggest I do not ignore shortcomings in our local breweries – quite the opposite. A careful reading of my reviews of regional beer would reveal that I quietly suggest how they could improve without losing sight of what the beer has to offer.

prairiemapTo a beer geek, a particular craft beer may seem, tame, timid and boring. But to another, it might be full of good flavour and nicely balanced. Neither is wrong; they are just coming from different places. My job is to respect where someone is coming from and help them along. It is the same for beer cultures in general. My job is to accurately assess where a city/province/region is at and figure out a way to move them forward.

Which leads me to my third reason. I think the core of this comes down to a disagreement of what is the best way to advance good beer in the region. Dave, I think, feels that I should be something of a vanguard, pushing and raising the bar, being the voice of the beer aficionado in Alberta. I believe that to a certain extent I perform that role at times. But it is not how I see my contribution to beer in our area, or how we best move the beer culture forward in these parts.

Instead, I see myself as one voice among a chorus of well-toned voices. There are lots of you out there who understand beer, and will vote with your wallets. You don’t need me to tell you which bars or breweries are the good ones – you already know. So for that portion of you, I hope my columns and posts are about a comrade sharing his perspective with equals.

But there is another aspect to my job. For beer drinkers wanting to go on a beer adventure but who are not sure of what the road map even looks like, I want to be a source of information, tips and helpful advice. These consumers vastly outnumber the friendly crowd of long-time beer geeks. For them, what is the value in saying, “the beer scene in Edmonton sucks”, or “sure you might like X beer, but it isn’t nearly as good as Y beer from elsewhere”? I believe that I serve the prairie beer scene more by helping to create a more educated, more demanding consumer and point them to some of the efforts of local brewers. And then THEY can tell the region’s brewers what they want to see more of.

Finally, I take a long view on things like this. Portland didn’t become Portland overnight. It took decades. I am optimistic that Edmonton (and the prairies in general) are headed in the right direction, and that we WILL see more breweries and more quality beer bars – and those people will push the ones who currently exist in a virtuous circle of better beer.

As a final post-script, I might know beer, but I don’t know very much about running a business. I feel it would be a bit arrogant of me to tell Alley Kat or Paddock Wood or Yukon or whomever that they should “up their game” and make more assertive/challenging beer. It is not me that has to sell it. You could argue they are selling the consumer short, and that people are more ready than they think. Maybe. But I think they have a pretty good handle on what it takes to sell craft beer in this town/province/region.

This post has gone on too long, so I will end there. But I hope this provides some insight into how I see my role, and how I think it contributes to growing beer in the region. I want to thank Dave for his comment – because he has a good point and it made me stop and think about what I am doing. That is the kind of accountability any writer – or brewer – wants and needs. And this post, too, is open to response, criticism and suggestions. All comments are welcomed, respected and will receive a fair reply.

 

 

 

 

 

10 comments to How Best to Grow Craft?

  • Mark Heise

    Yep, you pretty much nailed my approach to beer writing/education as well. The only path to a truly great (and unique) local beer scene is to support and promote from within.

    I also see no value in being the cranky negative beer writer. However, I do expect savy readers to read between the lines… Or think about why there are places/beers I won’t talk about… The criticism should become quite obvious.

    I also believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If there are no good IPAs available, I am more than happy to drink a tasty pilsner. This concept seems to be lost on many craft beer fans… Sorta funny how they won’t branch out, and only want DIPAs, barred aged imperial stouts, and sours… Kinda reminds me of the industrial lager crowd, and frankly quite boring.

  • Matt Sander

    I really appreciate Dave’s thoughts on the provincial beer scene. From my perspective he’s absolutely right – why can’t Albertan breweries produce a world class beer? Why does every ‘double IPA’ produced here need to feel so restrained? Have the brewers of the Dragon series and Hoptimal ever had a great double IPA? For a long time I’ve felt like beer enthusiasts in Alberta are far too easy on our brewers – a severe case of zymological stockholm syndrome. I’d love to include local bottles in international beer trades, but there is nothing produced here I’d be confident to send (so I substitute beers from BC and QC). We have talented brewers, plenty of resources and a market for bold American style beers – so why aren’t we making any locally? Surely the beer bar scene in Calgary has improved substantially in the last couple of years, but we still have a long way to go. I believe its important to be critical if you want to manifest change in something you feel truly passionate about. We are living in a global economy, it is no longer useful to compare our local brewers to Big Rock and the like.

    The homebrewing community in Calgary produces mindbogglingly great beer, so there is clearly some indigenous brewing talent. We need a shake-up or a kick-start in this province, because things are looking pretty abysmal.

  • If I could, I’d like to try to address one aspect of Dave’s commentary regarding the desire of local consumers from a (former) retailer’s perspective. I had the opportunity to work at one of the boutique stores in town at a time when they were making a huge push towards expanding their beer selection, and it was a somewhat fascinating experience with regards, at least, to the Edmonton market. While sales of the smaller, higher quality (and, often, the crazy over the top stuff which Dave alludes to in his commentary) did increase with the selection available, I found that the average consumer who was not already a beer geek was reluctant to move immediately into the realm of the Hop Stoopid or its ilk, even when encouraged to so by staff. That last part, I think, is important. While I am not saying that your average macro fan would dislike such beers if given the opportunity to try them, far from it in fact, I find that many develop their palates slowly. Which is where something like Alley Kat’s double dragon series (and I respectfully disagree with Dave’s assertion that they all taste the same, having done side by side tastings I find that the single hopping does make a notable difference) are a nice stepping stone into something more “interesting.”
    By the same token, I think that devoting a significantly greater portion of a brewery’s capacity to these more niche market beers would be detrimental to sales. To take a recent example, I cohosted a beer tasting at my old store this past weekend, wherein we tried to explore some of the range of less well explored American craft brewing (specifically, no ipas) and the response was decidedly mixed. There was most definitely some who found the more restrained brews we poured dull or uninteresting (and, nota bene, some of these were from very well regarded craft breweries) while others found the more extreme beers too overpowering or one note. I was struck that the most popular beer of the night was a flavourful, but comparably easy drinking, stout.
    I should close now, as I feel I may be meandering a bit, but I’ll sum up by saying that I think at least the Edmonton market is expanding at a natural rate. There are places like Three Boars, which is unquestionably a craft beer geek kind of place, and there are places like The Underground, which can help to offer a wide selection for newbies to find their way. It is too easy in my experience to get stuck in a “beer geek rut” as it were, and to think only of those already in the know. Let’s not forget that there are a million people in and around Edmonton, give or take, and that those who only know macro lagers are likely in the majority. Give it time, keep bringing out solid, if sometimes less exciting, brews, and the kind of improvement which I have seen in the past 6 or 7 years will continue to gain momentum.

  • Mark Heise

    Beer culture has to grow organically and slowly. You can stomp your feet and pound your fists all you want, but it won’t help.

    In 2004/2005, the Bushwakker brewed E of the greatest beers ever made in Canada, the SOB barleywine and Centennial Wheatwine. The few geeks at the time bought some, but it took until 2008 for them to finally sell out. The problem was that most people just weren’t ready for these beers.

    Pat yourself on the back for being ahead of the curve, and do your best to be a positive beer ambassador. Make some wicked homebrew. Share good beer with newbies, but do it in an approachable and fun setting (ie small samples and food, and do go overboard on the geeky info). I didn’t come out of the womb with a taste for DIPA, and neither did you, so quit looking down your noses at the unwashed mashes. It’s just beer.

    The breweries and bars need to make money. Period. They will gladly make/carry extreme beers if their is a market for them.

    In regards to the breweries, keep in mind they are small and frankly still perfecting things. If they have never brewed an Imperial Stout or sour beer before, it is pretty unfair to expect them to hit it out of the park on their first attempt. Absolutely provide feedback whether good or bad, but do it discreetly and in a psotive way. The breweries will respect you and take your criticism much better, instead of just ranting on a website like some whiny consumer. Remember that you are part of this beer culture, and should be looking to foster relationships with your fav brewers and bars.

  • David Rudge

    J,
    Perhaps your brand of balanced journalism and reporting the facts as you see them is too subtle for the internet age? You may not make it your mission to stir the proverbial pot, but (if I can make an educated guess) sometimes it happens naturally. There’s too many cartoon characters on the interwebs that wave their arms around furiously like a muppet, and spout ignorance and untruths just to be heard.

    Eventually an Alberta brewer will come along with a fire under their ass and the technical ability to make a vision (that beer knurds agree with) a reality. As a journalist and beer lover, we can harldy expect you to make that materialize – all I expect is that you let us know when it does occur.

    When that does happen, I’ll bet you a box of doughnuts that the lightest/least offensive beer in their portfolio will be their best seller, hands down.

  • T Elwood

    Jason,
    I think you touched on an important aspect when you say “Portland didn’t become Portland overnight”. It begs the question… How did Portland become Portland??!

    Or insert your favourite mature beer cultured region. Has anybody taken a serious and thorough look and does anybody know? Did Portland do anything differently than what we are collectively doing in Alberta? What are the differences, what are the similarities, what are the government regulations and policies, etc. I especially liked your two part series of articles looking at the retail and production side of beer in Alberta. I felt that was fairly illuminating in how we differ from other regions strictly on the basis of the regulations and operations we have to work within. The fact that a brewery in Alberta must achieve a 5,000 hL annual production capacity vaults the necessary startup capital into the realm of substantive. How can we have entrepreneurial breweries brewing entrepreneurial beers for niche markets in Alberta with that kind of government policy and business requirement. As you say, it may be a bit arrogant to assert that resident breweries “up their game” without considering the business pressures they initially face and have to overcome. On the flip side, as far as I can research, Oregon has no annual brewery production minimums. Is this true? It also appears that our neighbours in BC do not have any annual production requirements for both breweries and brewpubs. By comparison, BC breweries can start up small and aplenty and can find shelf space in Alberta. BC appears to have 68 breweries and brewpubs on record. Alberta has 16?

    The easiest, in terms of capacity requirements, way to produce beer in Alberta for sale is via BrewPub (10 hL weekly capacity). So in theory they could be more nimble, however, that licence is also shackled with the fact that off-sales are limited to the premises and a brewpub is coupled with a food service or restaurant, which is another ball game.

    In the spirit of annual year in review articles, I think we need to define Alberta beer culture goals and performance measures that are meaningful. Easier said than done. I agree, it’s a long road with continuous improvement.

    • Mark

      I believe that places like Portland, Denver, Montreal and even Victoria have great beer scenes is because these places embrace and promote local products. It also helps to have lots of hippies/hipsters who want natural, flavourful, local products that seem cool… there just ain’t enough of these people living on the prairies.

      When you talk to average prairie people, as well as politicians or govt liquor bureaucrats about “beer culture,” you get nothing but blank stares. Regina doesn’t even have a permanent farmers market, let alone a downtown grocery store. The local gems I know about and support are still relatively unknown by most people, yet you go to other cities with similar places and people are lined up out the door. Most prairie people still assume that anything good comes from a chain and/or somewhere else, and are leery of just about anything they aren’t familiar with… hardly the sort of people that would gravitate towards craft beer.

      I’m not saying that the prairies will never have a great beer culture, but as it stands right now, most folk are very green. When I eavesdrop on other people at “craft friendly” pubs and restaurants on the prairies, most have no idea what is good or bad beer. Most craft beer consumers are still just learning; at this stage, just about any craft beer will taste more interesting than a fizzy, yellow lager. At this stage, if a prairie brewer started churning out high quality, beer geek-caliber beers, I don’t think anyone would really care, aside from the few geeks.

      We’ve got a long ways to go. To bring it back to Jason’s original post, if an infant is just learning how to crawl, do you scream and yell at them when they don’t do it right? Or do you show them the way, and offer encouragement when they begin to slowly move in the right direction?

  • Don McDonald

    While I agree with all the points I would like to give the perspective of someone in the beer industry in Alberta.

    For those who don’t know I am the Director of Operations for Brewsters Brewing Company. I have been with the company for a long time and have seen a dramatic change in the beer culture in Alberta in the past 17 years.

    I remember a time when serving an unfiltered beer or a Belgian type product was impossible. The first time we brewed a Hefeweizen, 1997 i believe, there were definitely a few people who got it but most did not. Complaints of a beer that tasted like banana and cloves and wasn’t crystal clear was unheard of in this province. Now we have a White ale on year round and a Hefeweizen on for the summer season and they are both popular.

    When we produced our first batch of Blue Monk Barley Wine (10HL) in 1991 it took most of the year to move it. Now we produce 40+HL and it is sold from Oct 1 till mid March and sells out.

    A lot of people criticize us for producing beer like Original Lager and River City Raspberry Ale, both of which are top sellers, but the production of these brews allows us to try to make other products like our End of Days Extreme Ale (15.7%), Terminator Doppelbock (8.2%) and our soon to be released Romonov’s Revenge Imperial Stout (9%). As stated above making strong beer is an art and we rarely nail it the first time.

    In the past year have assembled a collection of very talented brewers, completed upgrades to the central brewery including a new glycol chiller, bottling line, brew magic system to make test batches, new unitanks and a new filter, that going to help us continue to improve our process and quality of beer. For those who have been consuming our beer for a long time I’m sure you have noticed a change over the years. As we have grown and expanded as a company so have our palates and beer offerings and we intend to continue with that. Our latest change was making 6 of our taps into the Brewery Rotational selections. While we have had the occasional miss most of our offerings have been good and will improve the next time we brew them.

    Sorry for the long winded reply but as someone who works in the Alberta brewing industry I am proud of the strides we have made and believe we are headed in the right direction. We need beer culture to change in this province before we can progress. It is the local pride that separates us from Portland, Seattle, Denver and Montreal, when Albertans are ready to support and recognize local beer other than Big Rock we will make strides for sure.

    • beerguy

      Don,

      I believe your comment deserves a reply. I am always thankful when people directly involved in trying to sell beer on the prairies participate in our discussions. Your perspective is an important one.

      I just want to say that I think that your experience is a microcosm of what is happening in the region. Yeah, we aren’t a global hot spot for craft beer. But if you compare us to a even a few short years ago, the progress has been impressive. Your accounting of how you have been able to use your base sales to finance some experimentation is perfectly on.

      Every brewer in the region has a light, accessible beer as their best seller. And that is okay. What I am impressed with is how in the last couple of years, those brewers are prepared to use the revenue generated from the best sellers to produce more challenging beer. Not all work (I could easily mention examples from everyone of them), but lots of them do (AND I could easily mention examples from everyone of them – get my point?). We need to be patient, appreciate what we have, ensure we buy pints/bottles of the stuff we like (as that is the best way to show support) and gently but honestly offer suggestions for how our local brewers can do better.

      Once again, Don, thanks for putting Brewsters and your experience there out for everyone to see.

      Cheers.

  • Hi everyone
    I am the managing partner and full fledged Hop Head of Hog’s Head Brewing. I wanted to weigh in on this very important discussion. First and foremost I want to applaud anyone who opens a brewery in this province it is extremely expensive and incredibly hard to do. Pushing the beer extremes is not a hard thing for most breweries to do but the reality is there are only a handful of bars and stores that will try to sell these cool beers. Every brewery owner I meet loves beer and appreciates the cool crazy beers available in other parts of the world but to make and sell these beers in Alberta right now is not an easy task so we need to make some mainstream beers in order to produce the crazy beers we would love to make. We have so far invested over a million dollars in our new brewery and we have just got started and plan to push the extremes!! Our competition from outside the province can ship beer here and have an agent sell it for them very cheaply so survival becomes a big reality for us. I originally came from Tree Brewing company where I launched Hop Head but we also had a simple lager no one remembers !! Alberta is ready to explode and believe me the Alberta Breweries will be keeping up or leading!! Give us time the Alberta Craft revolution is coming!!! And Jason you keep supporting Alberta Craft!!! And I promise to keep on pushing the limits of cool beer ( IPA’s anyway ) LOL

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