Interesting Numbers from the World of Beer

Item 1: People keep asking me why I see a bright future for craft beer in Brazil despite all the significant obstacles – lack of distribution infrastructure, high prices, no “cold chain” of delivery in which the beer is kept cold from brewery to consumer – and sometimes I wonder about it myself.

Then I come across an article like this one in The Globe and Mail newspaper and it all comes together. In case you don’t want to read the whole story, or the link breaks because the Globe puts the story behind their pay wall, here’s the gist: With 50 million Brazilians joining the middle class in the last decade, that segment of the population is now about equal to the percentage that is poor, about 30% each.

This new middle class is aspirational, and they want to spend their money on items to which they previously had not enjoyed access – the story highlights perfume and cell phones – like craft beer. I’ve seen the gestation of this at bars like Melograno and FrangÓ in São Paulo and I expect to see a lot more of it on my next visit, whenever that might be.

Item 2: I continue to hear American brewers fret about the number of breweries popping up in their country, worried about the so-called “bust” that they think must surely follow the boom. Too many breweries, too many SKUs (brands listed with distributors) and too confusing for beer drinkers are a few of the concerns I regularly hear voiced.

Umm, folks, ever heard of the United Kingdom? It’s a land of about 62 million people, where the total number of breweries just surpassed 1,000! And while they have their own issues to deal with over there, I’ve not yet heard much in the way of griping about the number of breweries and possible saturation of the market.

To put that in perspective, to achieve the same ratio of breweries per capita, the United States would have to add about 2,900 breweries to their existing total, more than doubling the number in place today.

Item 3: This is not so much a numbers thing as it is a bit of a rant. Although it does relate to Item 2 above.

Yesterday’s Shanken News Daily carried a story headlined “Craft Controversy: Rotating Drafts Spark Concern Among Brewers,” in which it was suggested that “some craft brewers are beginning to show concern that the very diversity that they have long promoted…may actually be damaging to their companies and the craft beer category.”

The piece goes on to quote Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Kansas city’s Boulevard Brewing – a craft brewery I know and quite like and the tenth largest craft producer by volume in the U.S. – as saying that bars which rotate their draft taps rather than sticking with a specific line-up of brands are hurting the industry by not giving breweries an opportunity to build their brands.

More egregiously, the story quotes Jim Gray, national draft director at the beer importer Crown Imports, purveyors of Corona and Tsingtao, among other brands, as complaining that “retailers who are focused on rotating draft handles aren’t focused on building brands” and that these beer sellers are only interested in “the shiny new toy that is offered to them each month.”

Here’s a piece of advice for you, Jim and Bob and any other salesperson out there trying to flog draft beer: The job of the licensee is to keep their customers happy, not to build brands. (Ahem, that’s YOUR job.) And if customers want variety in their beer selection, as a vastly growing contingent of beers drinkers do, well, that’s just the new playing field. Get used to it!

Good News/Bad News for Craft Beer in Brazil

If you’ve had a chance yet to look at the Emerging Markets chapter of the new World Atlas of Beer, you’ll know that my co-author and I are quite bullish on the future of craft beer in Brazil. With a fast-growing middle class, rapidly improving craft breweries and both the summer Olympics and football’s World Cup around the corner, we can’t help but think that things look bright for the country’s ever-expanding premium beer segment.

Since I’m writing about Brazil, I figure I might as well add a gratuitous cover shot from the Brazilian edition of The World Atlas of Beer.

And apparently we’re not the only ones.

The global research firm, Mintel, has just come out with a report that suggests “strong and premium beer” are the big growth segments in Brazil, with data showing sales had improved 18% year-on-year to 2011.  In the report, Sebastian Concha, research director, Latin America at Mintel, is quoted as saying:

“The fact that premium beers are gaining more market share from the standard beer sector highlights the changing consumer mindset in Brazil and how beverage habits relate to this. Huge opportunities lie with Brazil’s hosting of key live sports events in the coming years. With a strong sporting prowess in Brazil and a product closely linked with sporting culture, beer manufacturers who can capitalize on local enthusiasm and blend this to ensure a premium product positioning stand to benefit.”

Now, admittedly, by “premium” Mintel means primarily imports and niche domestic brands like the Kirin-owned Devassa and Heineken-owned Kaiser Bock, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure that the crafts should be able to capitalize on this movement, as well. After all, what was then just InBev unwittingly helped along the rise of craft beer in North America by promoting the hell out of its imported brands.

Which, unfortunately, is also where the bad news comes in. Moments after I received the Mintel report, I also found in my inbox a news item about the intent of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Brazilian division, AmBev, to open a chain of bars called Nosso Bar across the country. Organized via a semi-franchise arrangement, the bars will reportedly present a clean and gender-neutral image and be designed, of course, to fiercely promote AmBev brands such as Brahma and Sköl.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the latter news in any way outweighs the former — I remain convinced that the future is bright for Brazilian craft beer, despite the barriers the breweries still must overcome — but with AmBev and the other large breweries seeing great revenue potential in South America, the road ahead will likely be anything but smooth.

A Matter of Taste, or Rather, Tasting

For some odd reason, views of my long ago response the the sad fellow known in Seattle as “The Pour Fool” — no link provided because, frankly, he doesn’t deserve the hits — have been spiking of late. Rereading my missive and his response — “I don’t drink wine with food;” “I value food too much to simply use it – or wine – as ‘conversational lubricant;’” “those pre-game beers before Seahawks games – the only time I ever drink before 3 p.m.” — made me think a bit about beer and the nature of taste.

I’m off tonight to Belgium, where I will judge in the Brussels Beer Challenge, and thence to Rome, where I will sample as many Italian craft beers as possible during my short stay. (Thanks in large part to Manuele Colonna, co-owner of Bir&Fud, Ma Che Siete Venuit A Fa, and other Rome beer destinations, inlcuding the Domus Birrae beer shop.) I will do my level best to assess each brew impartially and to the very best of my ability, but even before I board the plane I know that what I will taste is not likely to be what you will.

Why? Because I will be tasting without context.

It is, after all, what we reviewers are supposed to do: detach ourselves from the moment and assess on a blank canvas of aroma and taste. But let’s face it, that’s not how beer or wine or spirits or cocktails are normally supped, and neither should it be. Unlike how Mr. Brody would have us drink, alcohol is meant to be a social pleasure, whether shared between keyboardists furthering a tweet-up tasting or enjoyed among friends at the pub or family at the dinner table. Taste can and should factor into the equation — otherwise, why not just drink water? — but the social side is of at least equal and perhaps greater importance.

That’s why I drink wine and beer and sometimes spirits with food (and friends) and value food too much NOT to use it or wine or beer as a ‘conversational lubricant’ and will certainly from time to time drink before 3:00 pm, occasionally well before, say, with lunch or at a morning beer judging in Brussels.

And as for the last, given that I will be with fellow judges who are also friends — including Lisa Morrison, Tim Webb and Lorenzo Dabove — I’m kind of hoping there will be at least a bit of a social aspect to that, as well.

Hence My Lengthy Absence…

Wow, has it really been a month since my last post here? Apparently so, but in my defense, with good reason. You see, I’ve been drinking…

Okay, more seriously, I’ve been travelling in support of the North American release of The World Atlas of Beer, which I’m pleased to say has been very well-received by both the beer and general interest presses. Tim and I spent just over two weeks travelling from New York to Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, all over Texas, Denver and finally Chicago promoting the book. And yes, it did involve a fair bit of drinking.

My favourite event? Oddly enough, that came at the tail end of the trip, after Tim had buggered off to Quebec City, leaving me to handle Chicago promotions on my own. My first stop was Rockwell’s Neighborhood Grill, where I hosted a beer and whisky and cheese pairing during which everyone seemed to have a great time, the pairings clicked rather uniformly and rather amazingly no one got terribly drunk. Good hardy drinkers, those north Chicagoans.

Beer finds along the way were numerous and far too many to relate all in detail, but I can say for certain that I won’t soon forget lunch at Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham – for reasons both burger and beer – and Natty Greene’s from neighbouring Raleigh likewise made an impression with their Minuteman American Rye.

Down in Texas, I had my first extensive sampling of the beers of Jester King and walked away quite impressed, particularly with the brewery’s low alcohol offerings. (Paging Lew Bryson! Lew “Session Beer” Bryson! Please come to the bar.) One day later, new arrival Karbach Brewing caught my attention with a few beers, in particular a commendably restrained Rodeo Clown Double IPA and a wonderfully toasty Karbachtoberfest.

Up in Denver, there were beers aplenty, but one that stuck out as particularly memorable was the Odell Porter aged in barrels formerly used to mature a fernet-style amaro made by the local distiller, Leopold Bros. Herbaceous, piney, mint and of course roasty, it was a love-it or hate-it beer for certain, but I fell resolutely in the former camp.

Then, in Chicago, there was that beer-whisky/whiskey-cheese thing at Rockwells. Let me tell you, if you ever get the chance to sample together  Knob Creek Bourbon, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and the French cheese known as Brillat Savarin, aka “sin,” take it! You will not be sorry.

THIS is What Beer Can Do!

Most beer aficionados are more concerned with what’s in their glasses than they are with impact its production, promotion or sale can make, and rightly so. But this recent summary of the economic impact of the Oregon Brewers Festival nonetheless deserves note.

According to a release that landed in my inbox earlier this week, the Oregon Brewers Festival, which this past summer celebrated its 25th anniversary edition, made a contribution to the Portland economy of roughly $30 million!

That impact was primarily felt by the tourism industry, of course, with accommodations ($9.31 million) and food and drink ($7.96 million) accounting for the majority of OBF visitor expenditures, according to the release. But other benefits were also felt, like $8.9 million in indirect economic impact and the creation of over 350 jobs. (The release isn’t specific about the full- or part-time nature of the jobs.)

By whatever measure, that’s an impressive amount of clout for a three day beer festival, and makes one wonder what an equivalent study of the upcoming Great American Beer Festival might be. Given that the GABF would seem to be more a travel destination than the OBF – although that’s just me speculating – I’d say it would be quite extraordinary.

Beer in Canada

I’ve been a bit busy running around, flying about and writing for money of late, so I’ve missed out on posting about some upcoming events and news items pertaining to beer in Canada. Here, then, is a quick round-up of interest to Canucks and those planning to visit my home and native land in the near future:

1) The big news of the summer is that Westvleteren is coming to town! Now, Westvleteren 12 might be the most over-hyped beer in history, but the monastery brewery is nonetheless exceptional at what they do, so this opportunity is nothing to sneeze at. Alberta-based Horizon Beers is the agency bringing it in, in the form of 6 bottle, 2 glass six-packs. The last I heard, allocations are going to Ontario and points west – sorry Maritimes & Quebec – and it should be arriving sometime in the very near future. Keep your eyes peeled!

2) For Torontonians, on the eve of Toronto’s Festival of Beer, comes word (via Canadian Beer News) that a new beer festival is headed your way. The Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival will take place August 11 and 12 in the area fronting Steam Whistle Brewing. Check here for details.

3) I won’t be around for the Roundhouse fest because I’ll be busy at the Halifax Seaport Beer Festival that weekend, hosting a beer dinner at Brussels Restaurant on Thursday and hanging at the fest Friday and Saturday. If you’re in or nearby to Nova Scotia, come on over and say hi!

4) The weekend following the Seaport fest, I’ll be in Ottawa for the National Capital Craft Beer Festival, speaking both Friday and Saturday. My buddy Jordan St. John will be there, too, so get yourself down to Marion Dewar Plaza on August 17 and 18 and harass him, will ya?

5) Finally, I’ve been sampling a bunch of Canadian beers of late, both established brands and new arrivals. Here are some thoughts in brief –

  • Waterloo Authentic Amber, from Brick Brewing, sold singly or as part of their sampler pack, shows caramelly malt and some vanilla notes from the oak chips used in its lagering. Not bad, but a bit too sweet and cloying for my tastes.
  • Brasseurs Sans Gluten’s Blonde Ale is a gluten-free winner, spicy and citrusy with a bone dry finish. A triumph for Celiac and gluten-sensitive beer drinkers.
  • Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company’s latest collaboration, Venskab, made with Anders Kissmeyer, is a fascinating creature, with bog myrtle, yuzu fruit and ice wine-soaked wood chips all figuring in its recipe. The result is a sweet-ish and somewhat winey tripel, reminiscent of a citrusy dry vermouth, with bitterness creeping around on the outskirts. We’ll be serving this at my beer dinner in Halifax.
  • Lastly, Moosehead sent me over some of their Cracked Canoe, a 3.5% alcohol light lager with a thin sweetness, not quite grainy, but far from caramel or toffee maltiness. All in all, a very light tasting lager with a sweetish edge to it.

 

The Chinese Elephant in the Brewery

I’ve been thinking a lot about the largest beer-producing country in the world of late. In case you are unaware, that’s China, which now brews over twice as much beer as the number two producer, the United States.  Then a release from the research firm Mintel arrives in my in-box and the numbers set me reeling.

What kind of numbers, you ask? This kind:

  • China’s beer market grew by 29% in volume terms in the five years to 2011;
  • The market also grew 63% in value terms over the same period;
  • This resulted in a total volume of 50 billion liters (426 million barrels) of beer consumption in 2011;
  • Which meant that year-on-year market growth for beer in 2011 was 13%!

And while I’ve thus far been able to unearth little about craft beer in China, consider this quote from Mintel’s director of China research,  Matthew Crabbe (emphasis mine): “While the market is booming, brewers need to compete more cleverly than ever before in order to engage with key consumer groups in China who will be key purchasers in the coming years, including the youth and women’s markets, as well as connoisseur drinkers of premium beers. The recent drop in growth of wine and spirits sales could leave room open for high-end ‘snob-brews’ to find new interest.

Mark my words, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about beer in China in the coming months and years.

In Praise of Light Beer

No, silly, I don’t mean that kind of light beer, the “lite” sort of stuff. Rather, I come to sing the praises of simple 4% alcohol ale, what Lew Bryson has been championing as session beer and others have been alternately glorifying and vilifying.

Even more precisely, and at the same time more generally, I want to talk about the pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde I enjoyed at the Tennents Bar in Glasgow just a shade over a week ago.

Before I begin, however, I should mention a couple of things. First off, what I remember of that fine pint of cask-conditioned ale is precisely that, what I remember. I had just come from a rather large dinner at an Indian restaurant and as such my palate was in less than fine fettle, so no written notes were made. And secondly, although I believe that the Summer Blonde to indeed be a very lovely ale, in this instance I see it as more a composite of many such ales on cask in pubs across the United Kingdom.

Now, back to that pint. It was, as its name suggests, blonde of hue. It had a bracing and refreshing, even stomach-settling, twang of American hops in its aroma and flavour, hops I later discovered – thanks to Harviestoun’s annoyingly slow-moving website – to be Cascades, although I would have guessed as much. It had a lightness of character that suited it equally to the consumption of several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening and the slaking of a pepper-and-salt-induced after-dinner thirst.

It was, in summation, the ideal beer for the moment. And for me, it proved several pints points.

First and most obvious of these is that it is entirely possible to make great-tasting, characterful beer at 4% alcohol by volume. Hell, it’s possible to do so at even lower levels of strength, although it probably gets quite tricky below, say, 3.2% or so. This is not to say that such beers are the be-all and end-all, or that they are what I want to drink all the time, but I’m happier knowing that they do exist.

(I knew this before, of course, from many trips to the U.K. and more than a few pints and half-litres of lower strength ales and lagers, but it’s nice to have that moment of pure clarity from time to time.)

Point number two is that British brewers tend to use American hops in cask-conditioned ales more effectively than do American brewers. This only makes sense, as they have more experience with creating cask-conditioned beers of all stripes, but it also reinforces the relative novelty of such ales on North American shores and their – again, relative – newness to brewers on this side of the proverbial pond. Nothing wrong with keg beers, says I, or the fact that it serves many North American ales much better than does cask.

Finally, and on a very much related note, the Natural Blonde reminded me that Cascade and other C-hop varieties work so well over here in part because of the quenching nature of their citrusy character. A well-Cascade-hopped ale can be a most a refreshing animal, whether poured from the keg or cask, and when the temperature soars well above normal Scottish or Yorkshire summer levels, or the three-pepper-symbol curry was the choice for dinner, that quality is very much appreciated.

More New Zealand Notes

As I flip through my notebook post-New Zealand, a few things stand out, such as:

Best Beer Name: Pernicious Weed by Garage Project

Best Beer Story: Red Zone Enigma by Twisted Hop — The Twisted Hop brewery was located within what is now the infamous “Red Zone” in Christchurch, which meant that a conditioning batch of their Enigma barley wine was necessarily left to mature from February, when the earthquake struck, to August, when the owners were finally allowed in to extract it and bottle it up! I didn’t have a chance to try it, but it is by all accounts very good indeed. (And I heard good news from Twisted Hop, too! Seems they’ll be reopening in not just one, but as many as three locations in Christchurch.)

Most Ridiculous Idea (That Actually Worked): The madmen behind Yeastie Boys thought it would be a wise idea to brew a beer with 100% peated malt, thus producing Rex Attitude, which strikes me as what Ardbeg might make if it were a brewery rather than a distillery. If that wasn’t foolishness enough, they then decided to up the alcohol content to 10% in an even bigger, peatier beer, Rex, which oddly enough seems more balanced and approachable than the 7% original.

Best Use of Non-Hop Local Ingredients: The Captain Cooker Manuka Beer from the Mussel Inn is flavoured with tips plucked from the manuka tree. The result is one of the most intriguing spice characters I have ever encountered in a beer.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Arrow Brewing’s Hop in a Bottle, which, yes, actually contains a whole hop cone. One which flakes apart when the bottle is even slightly agitated, leaving significant flotsam floating in your glass.

Best Marketing Slogan: Moa Brewing’s “Dark and acceptable to all palates. The Will Smith of beers.”

I Have Been to New Zealand, and It Is Good!

As I type these words, I sit in the Wellington airport awaiting the start of my lengthy journey to Auckland, Los Angeles and finally Toronto. It has been a long way to come to drink beer, but i think it was worth it. Here’s why.

1) One of the reasons i came here was to investigate New Zealand hops, which a number of U.S. and U.K. brewers have been taking a shine to lately. What i found is that they are exactly as interesting, characterful and flavoursome as you’ve been hearing. Not enough are being grown at present, but i expect that will change.

2) Kiwi brewers, by and large, have no idea what they are sitting on down here. Richard Emerson at Emerson Brewing has developed a wonderfully different sort of pilsner using New Zealand hops, and others have followed suit on both the lager and ale side of the ledger, but generally they seem unaware of the potential gold mine that resides in these styles. That, too, will undoubtedly change.

3) Don’t be surprised if sometime over the next couple of years you start hearing about New Zealand style beers. For me, the pilsner is the most glorious, but it will likely be the Kiwi pale ale/IPA that takes off, led by breweries like Tuartara and 8 Wired.

4) Captain Cooker Manuka Beer. Remember it.

5) The first big NZ beer presence you can expect in the U.S. will be Moa, which just hooked up with Whole foods. Watch for Five Hop and Méthode.

6) The largest craft brewery in New Zealand is miniscule by North American standards. This is a country desperately in need of both hop acreage and brewing capacity.

More later. Plane is boarding.

 

5)

Heading West, Then Waaaaay West

A week from tomorrow morning, an Air Canada plane will touch down at SFO, bringing me to three days of San Francisco Beer Week, or as it’s better known, SF Beer Week. If you are going to be anywhere near the Bay Area from this Friday, February 10, until Sunday, February 19, you should be checking the schedule regularly.

One event that stood out for me almost immediately is the inaugural East Bay Brew Fest, a charity event featuring brewers from the other side of the Bay. I’ll be there. Will you?

And on Sunday it’s off to Wellington, New Zealand, which is not only the country’s capital city, but also the Craft Beer Capital!

Looking Back Post #2: My Favourite Beer Place of 2011

I did a fair bit of travelling in 2011, some 50,000+ air miles according to my mileage club statements, and I visited a good number of bars, brewpubs, breweries, distilleries, festivals and other sundry drinks destinations. But as I reflect on the year past, one spot stands out as the single most extraordinary beer locale of my 2011.

It is the Buena Birra Social Club in Buenos Aires.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a good many speakeasy-style cocktail bars over the past few years, but Buena Birra is the only speakeasy-style brewpub I’ve been to, or even heard of. The method of getting there is simple compared to the false walls and unusual entrances that mark such cocktail bars: You go on the website and make a booking, at which time they’ll tell you where it is. Then, if you’re like me and the Brazilians with whom I made a visit in May, you pile in a cab and wind up on what looks to be a residential street in front of a nondescript and very locked gate.

Fortunately, as we stared at each other blankly, someone from within the house spied us and came out to let us in, where we found a house that has been converted to a main floor bar and what I assume to be an upper loft living area. And in the garden shed out back? You guessed it! A mini brewing system.

The beer was good, sometimes quite good, but it was the whole experience that ranks the Buena Birra Social Club so highly in my mind. Great place, great people, wonderful concept, and a definite destination for anyone in or near Buenos Aires, Argentina!