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Thoughts on the DC Brewery Trip to Schlafly

This past weekend, folks from four DC area breweries (and yours truly) flew some seven hundred miles to join Schlafly for its Repeal Day Festival, thanks to the generosity of our hosts. And what a weekend it was. But because no one likes hearing how much fun other people had, this won’t be your typical recap piece. Instead, it might best be thought of as a narrative review of lessons learned from our excursion, an admittedly hazy chronological stroll through our time in the Gateway City. If you’re looking for background on the trip, check out our preview piece.

  • Every market is different. Given the popularity of Kolsch here in DC, I was surprised to learn that Pale Ale is far and away the best seller in Saint Louis. Intellectually, I’m well aware that craft beer markets vary enormously in terms of taste, but it was still something of a shock to hear that a British pale ale – not exactly the hottest style in these parts, despite its virtues – represents a huge share of Schlafly’s local sales. When they opened shop in 1991, Anheuser-Busch was the only other game in town, and early craft beer drinkers gravitated toward more interesting British and German styles. Pale Ale offered a flavorful alternative to the macro offerings that otherwise permeated the market, and the gratitude and loyalty built over the decades (plus a healthy suspicion of trendiness for its own sake) keeps Pale Ale in its hallowed position. Having only recently entered the DC market, Schlafly didn’t have that deep history to draw from. Instead, it stood out with its Kolsch, an easy-drinking style with pedigree that’s not nearly as common as pale ales. Different strokes for different area codes.
  • Partnerships between breweries and retailers can yield a ton of good will. Directly after landing, Right Proper’s Thor Cheston and Nathan Zeender, Schlafly’s East Coast rep Mike Harbin and I met co-founder Dan Kopman and brewing ambassador Stephen Hale at Pastaria, a local Italian restaurant. A quick perusal of the menu revealed that Schlafly had teamed up with Pastaria to brew a British mild with locally grown chestnuts. The recipe was a clever one, invoking both the region’s large nut-growing industry and the Italian birraale castagne.  Our server was proud to have peeled some of the chestnuts used in the beer, making her more likely to recommend it when asked for suggestions. The volume of that beer sold probably doesn’t even register for Schlafly, but every person at the table drank at least one because it was special. The partnership endeared fans of the brewery to Pastaria, and vice versa.
 

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  • Limited release beers are born of compromise and negotiation. This is doubly true for one-off collaborations. When Nathan and Thor flew out the day before brew day, most of the details of the beer seemed to be set: it was to be a hoppy farmhouse ale, with RP yeast, Schlafly hops, and a jointly determined grain bill. But when it came time to mill, they were short some of the Euro Pils called for by the recipe; the maltster had taken off for the Good Friday holiday, delaying the delivery. In the end, the Right Proper team agreed with Schlafly Taproom brewers Brian and Augie to supplement with 2-row base malt; the farmhouse tradition is based on adaptability and improvisation, so swapping in a more available grain was a legit move.  Of course, the Pils delivery arrived at grain out, but such is life. 
 

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  • Breweries spend a ton of effort building their image. Unsurprisingly, they can be hesitant to make any sudden departures from their established culture. Schlafly is known as a brewery that pulls no punches: the lion’s share of its beers are impeccable versions of classic styles and are named as such – American IPA, Kolsch, etc.  Right Proper, on the other hand, plays with conventions, often arriving at new flavors and names through experimentation and free association.  See, e.g., Bringing in the Sheaves and Astral Weeks.  While the two breweries had no trouble arriving at common ground in terms of the beer itself, it’s still not clear what name it will be poured under.  Several of us petitioned Dan Kopman to make an exception in order to commemorate a piece of history related to the original taproom; time will tell if that appeal finds purchase.
 

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Apr 9, 2015 at 6:56am PDT

 

  • Tastes change, and breweries are smart to change with them. It’s hard to conceive of all the seismic shifts in American craft beer since Schlafly was founded a quarter century ago. As American palates evolve, smart breweries adjust their portfolios, even if it causes ripples. People develop emotional attachments to their hometown beer – I drank this at my first baseball game, that’s what I served at my wedding – and saying goodbye can be tough. But in the cold, hard light of day, it’s an economic decision that has to be made in the aggregate. That’s why Schlafly is saying farewell to ESB, a style that’s not as popular nationally as it once was, as well as much of the current 750 ml series. In their place, the brewery plans to release a kellerbier and the Ibex series, respectively. The first Ibex beer will be the vibrantly purple Lazy Ballerina, a French saison with Chambourcin grapes that marks their first major foray into mixed fermentation, barrel-aged beers. Keep your eyes peeled for both Lazy Ballerina and the Schlafly-Right Proper collaboration during SAVOR week.
 

 

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  • Festivals needn’t be mad scrums. Far too often, festivals come across as money grabs, with exorbitantly priced tickets giving patrons the right to battle with thousands of their closest enemies for a two-ounce pour of some whale that the organizers convinced a brewery to donate free of charge (more on that later). Rather than max out the attendance at Repeal Day, Schlafly capped tickets at 1,200, forgoing some extra revenue but making the experience so much more enjoyable for the attendees. There was ample space to move around and no crush preventing people from asking questions at the taps.  The beer flowed continuously, but only a handful of the 32 beers kicked before a hard 5pm close. Volunteers were well-versed in the beers they poured and worked hard for their 2.5 hour shift; in exchange, they were able to carry off as many cases of soon-to-be-retired ESB as they could carry. It was a master class in event planning.

  • It takes some work, but it’s possible to do right by other breweries. All weekend, the DC area breweries praised Schlafly’s approach to bringing in out-of-market beer. Not only did Schlafly pay the breweries for their beer – by no means a universal practice at massive festivals – but they allowed the DC breweries to fill Schlafly kegs that recently kicked in DC, shipping them back to Saint Louis full of DC beer rather than empty. Managing cooperage is a big concern for smaller craft breweries, so it was a major relief to avoid tying up kegs for a festival outside of their normal distribution area. That’s to say nothing of their generously hosting four breweries (and DC Beer) for a long weekend.

  • Camaraderie is easiest when everyone is confident in their brand. This goes for breweries from both DC and Saint Louis. Advanced, knowledgeable markets like these can sustain a huge range of beers; there’s no reason that one brewery has to play every role.  Specialization enables brewers to perfect recipes and carve out a niche for themselves while still ensuring that the market won’t see any gaps in offerings. That helps explain why the Schlafly team was so adamant that the DC brewers go check out other Saint Louis brewers: Civil Life’s focus is different from Urban Chestnut’s. Four Hands and Perennial and Side Project don’t make Schlafly weaker, but rather complement them and help flesh out and grow a robust beer-drinking market. I saw that dynamic play out live at the festival, as each of the DC area breweries brought beers that appealed to different segments of the crowd. Every brewery was someone's favorite, which is a sign that festival organizers did their job in assembling the vendors. The limited tapping table was a lesson in specialization: Bluejacket brought Country Fair, a deeply complex Sauternes-aged strong golden with tangerines, as well as the rare Gene Turns 10K; Right Proper poured a ginavit barrel-aged version of their tripel Gnosis; Heavy Seas shared a dry-hopped cask of Loose Cannon; and Port City focused on approachable, crushable styles, including a rare keg of Tartan.  All four played to their strong suit and everyone, including the attendees, was better for it. 
 

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There’s plenty more to discuss, but for now, I’ll just say thanks to our incredibly generous hosts, the DC area breweries that did us proud, the other Saint Louis breweries who welcomed our traveling sideshow, and the good people of Missouri for their love of craft beer.  

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