May 22, 2013

“Our role as importers is to really be curators”

This story appeared in the May edition of the Gazette van Detroit. I've been writing a monthly column there, Saison D'etre, since late 2012.

When it comes to Belgian Beer’s influence on America, few annual dates tell us as much as the release of the Vanberg & DeWulf portfolio. The boutique importer is not the largest beer importer, but it is the one that takes the most pride in its connection to traditional Belgian brewing and practices.

And one look at this year’s 70-page portfolio (available at reveals one thing: Belgian beer isn’t just in Belgium anymore.

“Our whole premise is that brewing talent has gone worldwide,” says Vanberg’s Don Feinberg. “The world that we live in now – which seems so fertile and creative – Belgian beer is a huge part of that.”

The portfolio features beers from Iceland, Italy, France and the UK, referred to as “honorary Belgian Beers,” from breweries that exemplify the central Belgian virtues of “flavor, complexity and balance.”

Feinberg says that they do not look for beers that are “brewed for export,” but rather for those that are aimed at a domestic Belgian aesthetic.

Take the dry-hopped Saison Dupont. At first glance, the words “dry hopped” might indicate that the new offering was deliberately aimed at the hop-centric US market, but the beer has been brewed for Belgian consumption alone for the last five years.

“We want to import the Belgian experience,” Feinberg says, though those virtues can come from anywhere.

Then there’s the Gandavum, the house beer of the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, the most famous pub of Ghent. Gandavum is the Roman name for Ghent, where Feinberg and his wife live part of the year. Feinberg calls the dry-hopped beer “a little bit of a misdirection” for Vanberg, in part because it is made by De Proef Brouwerij, an ultramodern scientific brewery whose focus on experimentation is at odds with the Vanberg emphasis on traditions. Still, the beer’s association with the Ghent beer house and its dry, herbal flavor made it a fit within the Vanberg portfolio.

Then there are the new beers by Amiata, an Italian brewery in Tuscany.

“The Italians’ basic approach is that they are unbound by style,” Feinberg says, in part because there is no long tradition of brewing beer, and so there are almost no indigenous biases. The new Amiata offerings include the Marruca honey ale and the Comunale, a British influenced session ale.

“Five years ago, we never would have brought in beer from the UK,” Feinberg says, but the new globalization of Belgian traditions in beer has changed the landscape.

And now Lowestoft, England’s Green Jack Brewery is a part of the portfolio, bringing in beers that Feinberg calls “Belgian structure with British flavor.”

rippa_labelLead by the Rippa, an 8.5% “English Trippel,” the Green Jack offerings verge on sessionable by U.S. standards, ranging from 4.6% to 5.5%. Feinberg said they only feel comfortable importing these small, sparkling ales with live yeast thanks to the KeyKeg, a disposable one-way keg that allows for referementation and a “virgin fill, virgin pour” experience thanks to its innovative design that prevents elements like a bar using 50% nitrogen gas (compared with 100% carbon dioxide, which is the way most Belgian beers are designed to be forced) or unpredictable space in a traditional keg from corrupting the way the beer is supposed to taste.

“We only import beers that taste here like they do there,” Feinberg says.

So, just as the “there” is expanding geographically with the influence of Belgium’s brewing history, technology is now allowing the US market to get a broader taste of that influence and its effects on brewing cultures everywhere.

As Feinberg puts it, “the Belgians have always been great exporters.”

May 7, 2013

Amager Bryghus' "Lust" Beer is Too Sexy for Sweden, Just Sinful Enough for a Blog Post

So, last month, the Swedes told Danish brewer Amager Bryghus that one of their beers would need to be distributed with blacked out labels, because it was just too freakin sexy. Actually, they said it was too "sexual," but my way of describing it is more fun and makes it sound like it was delivered by Horatio Sanz in a mariachi uniform behind Chris Kattan playing Antonio Banderas.

According to the story on UPI:
Danish brewer Amager Bryghus said its Lust beer -- part of a seven-part Sinner Series of beers featuring cartoon labels -- will receive a special label for sale in Sweden's liquor stores, run by state-owned company Systembolaget, after the retailer declared the cartoon image of a woman partially submerged in water while apparently nude was too suggestive. 
"We can't accept the label, it's against Sweden's alcohol laws," Systembolaget spokesman Lennart Agen said. "It's quite a sexual label." 
Amager Bryhus said Lust beer will be sold in Sweden with the cartoon portion of the label blacked out. 
"We had to go through 10 attempts before they'd accept it," said Henrik Papso, head of communications at the brewery. "We were trying for a bit of humor with the text, but they wouldn't let me get away with it."
Well, that is intriguing. First, it involves the Denmark and Sweden, two of my favorite nations (during WWII, when my ancestors were being exterminated and FDR was a little too "busy" to bomb a train track or two, the Danes and Swedes were basically the only two nations that took serious efforts to stand up to Nazi genocide efforts). Also, I have been known to write about over sexualized beer labels before. And if it's called "Lust," it must be pretty serious. So let's see what this scandalous label looks like...
Amager Bryghus Lust Label
Is it the fact that she has black hair? BOOM Nordic humor! 
...That's it?

I was kind of expecting some kind of lustful act, or at least a wanton gaze. All I've got is an anime girl taking a bath with a vaguely flirtatious look.

I mean, this is not great art or anything, and of course her breasts are absurdly large, but this is pretty damn mild compared to the chauvinism and lowbrow gutter humor we see all the time. I'm left thinking the Swedes are really prude.

Since we're doing this, and I'm interested in sin (academically!), let's take a look at the others in the Sinner Series. All art is by Simon Hartvig Daugaard:
Amager Bryghus Wrath Label
How Lew Bryson looks when someone calls a 6% ABV beer "sessionable"
WAIT. What?

So the submerged girl out of Sailor Moon draws a stink, but Demonface McBareboob is okay? To be fair, I have no idea if this label made it to Sweden (one suspects not), but if one is looking for overly risque label art to criticize, I'd start with the Skinimax-in-Gehenna label before the CW-at-7-pm one.

Amager Bryghus Sloth Label
How I look when someone illustrates a blonde ale with a blonde woman.
 Ha! I love this guy. He's not going anywhere. Way to capture sloth, Danes!

Amager Bryghus Envy Label
How my friends looked when I complained that it wasn't that warm in Austin.
She looks more miffed than envious, but I see it.

Amager Bryghus Greed Label
How I look when I get a check for writing about beer.
Little greedy guy caressing money. Straightforward. These labels are pretty much on the nose. Nicely illustrated, not too ridiculous.

Amager Bryghus Gluttony Label
How I look after a beer tasting with free cheese.
This one's got a little more creativity. Pretty disturbing, actually, but it gets the point across. His ravenous bellymouth appears to be eating giant hops. Like y'do.

Amager Bryghus Pride Label
I never look like this.
The most conceptual of these. I like the blindfolded man and the trappings of pomp.

 They put them all together in one nice, weird sin art piece:
Amager Bryghus Sinner Series Characters
Now THAT was a party.
We see the lusty one in the back there, thong-clad, coquettish and topless. Everyone else looks pretty much the same. I still love the sloth guy the most.

One other label I just wanted to throw out there, since I'm pretty unlikely to spend a lot of time on a Danish brewery again any time soon. It's an IPA called the Kaaad:

Amager Bryghus Kaaad IPA label design
She's not happy; she's just drawn that way.

I am pretty sure that, vague bunny veneer or no, that is the most sexual label we've seen here today. I mean, one could argue, I suppose, over whether a rabbit is ever really naked, and whether fur by itself constitutes covering... or one could look at this woman's fairly prominent nipples and very human face and say that if any label needs a black bar, this would be it. Which would be a shame, because the bright Easter-y colors and the double entrendres of the bunny and eggs are rather clever, by beer label standards.

Of course, I don't believe labels should have black censorship bars. The drinking age in Sweden is 18, so by then you can also buy pornography (and, given Europe's slightly less prudish view on nudity, you've probably seen a breast or two on TV by then). The point is, no 10-year-old will be wandering through a store and scandalized. Actually, none of the labels here should really scandalize anyone. These aren't overt sex acts, or even anything that constitutes an act. I wouldn't even think these are particularly sexual, but then I don't confuse the human form with sex. If the first beer was called "bathe" instead of "lust," I wonder if the Swedes would have felt quite so compelled to censor it.

May 3, 2013

Session #75: The Business of Brewing

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month's Session, hosted at Allbrews, is about business of opening and running a commercial brewery: "What were the prescient decisions that saved the day or the errors of omission or commission that caused an otherwise promising enterprise to careen tragically off the rails?"

This one is up my alley, I'd say.

First, some reality: Most small breweries, like most small businesses, are not started by people with any serious or formal knowledge of business. They are started by people who are good at a craft, and think that should be enough to be successful. It has been my experience that, in beer, the brewers are often bearded introverts who would rather talk to yeast than people. There are also a group of (more recent) brewery founders that think beer is cool and like talking to people, and they do not intend to let their lack of beer knowledge get in the way of their business.

Both of these types of brewery owners come with - shall we say - some challenges. The obvious:

Of course, making good beer is not nearly enough to do well at business. Business involves managing cash flow, inventory, supply chains and public profile. One defunct PA brewery, Legacy, made some great beer. They're gone now, and their intellectual property is owned by Ruckus, a marketing company that just announced plans to open a commercial brewery in Allentown

Being good at business is also not good enough without good beer. Let's look at Bavarian Barbarian, another defunct PA brewery with some good marketing and aggressive instincts. Unfortunately, their beer never got consistent. One batch would be decent, then the next flawed. With so much good beer out there, the market won't tolerate that for long. 

None of this matters if you have a brewpub, in which case you have a monopoly, and the margins are so good that the beer can stink and people will drink it and you'll be fine. Just ask Dogfish Head, whose beer was by all accounts undrinkable for the first four years, when the restaurant kept them afloat (they've gotten better, I hear).

But if you've got a production brewery, balancing the need for business with the need for product is a tough thing; most people only have enough lifetimes to get good at one side of that.

In my upcoming meadery, we're trying to solve the problem with the most effective way I've seen in beer: Get one of each kind of owner.

Now, my business partner is clean shaven and personable, but he knows he's no businessman. He's a virtuoso meadmaker. I'd venture to say I know more about beer and mead than most of the marketing-happy guys who start a beer company because it seems cool, but business school didn't teach me about degassing and nutrient additions. So, while we can help each other and give opinions, we also have spheres of expertise where we defer to each other. I wrote the business plan and Mike determined what our equipment needs are; Mike told me which flavor ideas I had were not likely to work and I told him we need more products that don't take 4 months to produce. We believe it to be a good partnership, but of course we're not operational yet.

The other thing to note is that breweries can have drastically different goals. Some want to grow and produce tons of beer and make tons of ever-growing revenue. Some want to run a small, noted successful operation that basically prints money on good profits. Both are fine. What does not work when a brewery thinks it wants to be big, but isn't sure. Growth requires risk and investment; if you're a naturally cautious, risk-averse person (as many brewers are), then get comfortable with being small or get comfortable with being out of your comfort zone (a paradox!). If you're a growth-focused, world-domination type of person, my advice is to know upfront where the money is coming from, and what you're giving up for it (usually equity or collateral for a loan).

In the last few years, we've started to see that the beer business can lead to some big returns. Goose Island, Crispin Ciders, Terrapin and others have seen exits and investments at significant multipliers. Beer companies like Pedernales and Churchkey found ready and willing investors necessary to help them make a big marketing push out of the gate. This is in sharp contrast to the traditional craft brewery investment, which were really closer to buying art or a really small baseball team (i.e., one bought it as a luxury ownership item) than it was to investing in a startup (where one wants to get rich). With big money will come harsher scrutiny and competition, and those who actually want to make some cash in beer will require more business savvy.
Like this guy.
It's become fashionable to say that we're in a "craft beer bubble." I agree to the extent that no industry grows double digits forever, but not much beyond that. It's a big country and lots of people like beer; just as there is room for a lot of restaurants and coffee shops, there's plenty of room for small breweries. There is limited room at the top, as there always is, but not everyone wants to be Applebee's or Starbucks. I'll end by saying that one trait that all successful breweries I've seen share with other successful businesses is a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and learn on the fly. Every single business makes mistakes, some of them enormous (InBev planned to move Hoegaarden to Jupille; everyone said the water wouldn't work); when those mistakes become obvious, the businesses that recognize it and keep pride from running the operation are the ones that survive to brew another day (InBev scrapped the plan; Hoegaarden still tastes good; the company bought Budweiser).

May 2, 2013

The Best and Worst Beer Art of April, including Star Trek beer, zombies and Elysian's new Oddworld Series

Another month in the bag, beerfriends. A sparse month for design releases, but some cool stuff nonetheless.

In the "Star Trek-Craft Beer overlap news" segment, we have two pieces of news. One is that Stone will produce a beer with Fark and nerdlord Wil Wheaton (formerly the snotnosed kid Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation), called, of course, "Farking Wheaton."
Stone Farking Wheaton W00tstout
I actually love the design. I think it looks great, and I love the name (though I could have lived without calling it a "w00tstout;" I don't think this project was in danger of not being precious enough).

Incidentally, if you don't know why Wheaton is a big deal in nerd circles, watch this:
He is kind of lovable.

Not to be outdone, Canadian brewery Cannery Brewing Company has released Vulcan Ale, "a logical choice for a palate pleasing libation." Lots of puns and references that Leonard Nimoy and Tim Russ would appreciate are littered throughout the label:
Cannery Brewing Company Vulcan Ale

Not best or worst, really, but strangest departure of the month belongs to Michigan's Dark Horse Brewing. Inspired by zombies, it appears, they decided to eschew their traditionally awesome woodcut-like work for a more 3Floyds-esque look in their new IPA mix case:

Dark Horse Arctic Dekoorc Eert Label Design
Zombie lumberjacks...

Dark Horse Edacsac Dekoorc Eert Label Design
...and bigfoot truckers...

Dark Horse FF Dekoorc Eert Label Design
...and robot mermaids?
I do not begin to understand these labels. I welcome any and all explanatory feedback or wild speculation as to what fueled this very strange art direction. I can't even find any story behind the "Dekoorc Eert" name.

Best labels of the month go to Almanac Beer Company, who has some really beautiful two-color font and woodcut design:
Almanac Beer Company Pale Ale Label Design

Almanac Beer Company Honey Saison Label Design
I don't think this design is technically new, but these labels are and it's the first time I've seen it, so... Yeah.

Another winner: Elysian Brewing Company, for their announcement of their Oddland series with artist Jim Woodring:

Elysian Brewing Oddland Series

Also good: Avondale Brewing Company, but I'm going to do a full post on them.

The worst of the month is an old favorite. Every year, Bridgeport picks a different fruit to put in its Belgian style sour ale, and every year they call it the Stumptown Tart, which they illustrate with a smiling woman reclining in garters next to some fruit:
Bridgeport Stumptown Tart 2013 Label
Tart! Ha! 'Cuz she likes having sex! GET IT?!