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The Beerbag – April 22, 2016

In the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and being fans of Drew Magary’s weekly Deadspin mailbag, “The Funbag,” Jake and I thought we would take a shot at a DCBeer mailbag. Every week or two, we’ll answer your questions, beer-related or otherwise, to the best of our ability. Have a question? Email us at editor@dcbeer.com and you could see your question here or maybe even on our podcast when it returns from its long hiatus.

@daves_32: pumpkin beer still on shelves in mid-April means…

Brewers and distributors have overdone it with this “style.” Check back two years from now for the same answer regarding grapefruit IPAs. – Jake

@BobbyBump: with discussions of Savor not being sold out, etc.are people bored of Beerfests or are there too many?

Fritz Hahn’s article in the Post does a good job with this question, but it leaves out two factors. First is that the Craft Brewers Conference is in Philadelphia four weeks before SAVOR. Beer tourists (yes they exist) who may have otherwise gone to SAVOR may instead be headed to Philly, choosing one event, or at least the festivities surrounding it, over the other.

Second is the food at SAVOR. It’s not hard to properly serve beer inside the National Building Museum, which remains one of DC’s unsung gems, but the lack of kitchen space means that properly-cared for beer–okay, sometimes it’s too cold–is too often paired with reheated food. It’s not a fair fight. DC’s dining scene has gotten much better over the past ten years or so, but the food at SAVOR remains inconsistent. Any foodies that might otherwise attend are now sitting it out. -Jake

Jake is right as (nearly) always. I just want to reiterate that the price ($135/person) just isn’t a great value proposition when you consider the food situation. The Woody Allen line “such terrible food and such small portions” is starting to ring a little too close to true (though it’s worth noting that the thinking behind the food isn’t as often the problem as the execution of the food). I’ve been on the board of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Brewer’s Ball for six years now, and the profile of the event has been raised both publicly and with brewers because of the quality of the food. Local restaurants come in and are paired with breweries, coordinating beer and food. It might be time for SAVOR to think about doing the same with local restaurants. Yes, it would be more logistically difficult because of the load-in, but I have to think that it would work out better and maybe attract people back to the event if they knew they were going to get their money’s worth food- and beer-wise. -Bill

What is the next brewery to sell out?

Looking at a map of the US, the Southeast, from Florida to Texas, is a bit of a dead zone for acquisitions, so let’s start our wild speculation there. St. Arnold’s, out of Houston, fits the bill geographically and in terms of capacity. It’s the 45th largest craft brewery according to the Brewers Association and has plenty of room to grow. If ABI or MillerCoors really wanted to make waves, Abita makes sense. It’s the 15th largest brewery and is available in 46 states already.

If this question is more about what local-ish, mid-Atlantic brewery might be next, I can play that game, too. Keeping it in Virginia, Starr Hill makes more beer than any other brewery in the state and has a robust distribution in the Southeast. Yards, out of Philadelphia, is another target. They make a lot of easy-drinking beers that could appeal to a larger audience. The next two are even closer to home: I’m sure big brewing conglomerates have kicked the tires on Baltimore’s Heavy Seas. Does Hugh Sisson want to sell? What would that mean for cask ale in the region? Next is our very own Port City, which knocks their styles out of the park. That would certainly play well regionally or nationally. -Jake

Just want to reiterate that this is all pure, wild, unbridled speculation on our part, so please don’t start tweeting these breweries saying you heard it from us that they were being acquired. With that said, Jake forgot that Terrapin sold a minority stake to MillerCoors, so the Southeast is not devoid of acquisitions. [Jake – I forgot about Poland, but not the minority stake in Terrapin, which doesn’t count as “selling out” since it’s not a controlling interest.] Now, beyond that, let’s not forget the stories that discussed a rumored sale of New Belgium late last year. That would probably rock the boat a smidge if it came to pass. -Bill

Anonymous: What do you see as the long term implications of buyouts of breweries like Devils Backbone, Elysian, and other ABI acquisitions? How will it impact distribution, shelf space, and selection at retail stores? Hop availability? Malt availability? Will it end at just buying craft breweries, or will they eventually seek to monopolize the entire industry and start buying out hop farms, maltsters, etc?

With regard to macros owning agricultural inputs, we’re already there, and we’ve been there for a while now. See http://anheuser-busch.com/index.php/our-company/operations/agricultural-operations/. And it’s not just macros either, Lagunitas’ has had a longstanding partnership with the hop farms that keep them well-supplied. It’s really hard to say what the long-term implications will be, especially since the question is so expansive. Goose Island is probably the best case study we have. Goose Island is now everywhere, and it’s everywhere fairly cheap. In the DC market, kegs of Goose Island IPA have been priced artificially low, which makes it tough for smaller breweries to compete in the long-term. At the same time, quality of these beers hasn’t suffered, which many critics projected when the deal went through. I have a hard time believing that on- or off-premise selection will suffer greatly as a result of these acquisitions. Craft consumers are still a fickle bunch who want a lot of variety; that’s going to trump a lot of what ABI can do to restrict selection to just their offerings. (Though I will be interested to see if local craft beer bars continue to stock Devils Backbone. I suspect they will.)

On the malt and hop availability, I don’t think acquisitions are any more dangerous to causing a hop shortage than these sudden proliferations of hop-forward cycles like the recent grapefruit, etc. IPA boom. Breweries changing hands isn’t going to suddenly require massive infusions of malt and hops. I’d mostly take a wait and see approach and check back in three to five years, when we might have a different perspective (and a longer period of time from which to draw evidence). -Bill

@drinksthethings: what do you think is the next step in terms of DC brewery expansion, to promote growth of beer in the city?

Two things that are very much related in Washington, DC: race and class. West of the river, while DC is not at a saturation point, it sure seems like it’s headed that way, and this is by and large a good thing. One of the closer grocery stores close to me sells singles of Stillwater Classique. What a world we live in! But at the same time, too much beer sits on shelves at these stores, getting stale. On the other hand, pretty much every bar near me has local beer on tap, though I’d like to see prices under $7/pint. The good news: DC Brau is expanding. 3 Stars and Right Proper just did. Atlas and Port City aren’t far behind. One would hope that as economies of scale increase, wholesale prices will drop, and some of that savings will be passed on to us as consumers.

As is the case with beer as a whole, local breweries remain overwhelmingly white, and bars and restaurants price pints out of reach for low-income consumers (again, the intersection of race and class). Both of these send a message, unintentional or otherwise, about who beer is for.

As grocery stores and sit-down restaurants come to Anacostia and Congress Heights, I hope that local breweries and distributors reach out east of the river and price beer accordingly. I also hope that local breweries and distributors hire local. -Jake

This is a very good question, and Jake’s answer is equally good. I’d really love to get to a point where I could slip into most any beer bar in DC and get an $8 shot and beer combo with local beer and local whiskey, but I think that will be tough any time soon given the incredible out-of-town distribution has with breweries who are much larger than those in our backyard.

I think in some ways one of the big steps that already occurred has been the formation of the D.C. Brewers’ Guild. The Guild, which is also taking over DC Beer Week this year, will hopefully help the local breweries to put on a united front for promoting beer education, quality, and accessibility in and around the District. Too often the local breweries aren’t pulling in the same direction (and I think you’ll continue to see that because the needs of, for example, brewpubs and production breweries aren’t the same), but having a formal body where they can set an agenda, collaborate, and lobby is a positive development.

Beyond that, I think the biggest next step is to be patient and give the local breweries some time. Brau just celebrated five years; just a half decade ago, D.C. didn’t have any production breweries. Although it feels sometimes like the beer world is stuck on fast forward, it does take time for breweries to mature. We’re hearing more about, for example, barrel-aging programs that are coming down the pike and new brewhouses that will allow for more volume (and allow for old brewhouses to become pilot systems). That’s great, and slowly but surely these kinds of changes will allow local breweries to do even more of what they have been for the past few years but with even more quality and consistency. DC breweries need to not fall into the many, many pitfalls out there facing craft breweries in terms of messaging, branding, and quality control, not insist upon themselves, and keep putting on great events with great beers. It’ll all come together naturally (though maybe slower than some would prefer).

But second to everything Jake said. If our local breweries aren’t first in line at accounts in Ward 7 and 8, I’ll be disappointed. Beer should be for anyone who is interested in it, not based on ZIP code. -Bill

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