Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.
These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.
It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?
In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.
But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.
But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)
These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.
For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?
It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.
I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.
What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?
Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).
It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):
My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.
As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.
We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.
Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.
Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.
And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight. Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?
Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.
After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.
Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …
Last week’s On-Tap Recap was postponed due to a family vacation. We took our eleven-month-old to our native New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. You read that right: a baby at Mardi Gras. If that surprises you, if all you know of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is what you’ve seen on late-night television, be aware that the booze-soaked, boob-baring buffoonery is generally limited to a downtown district called the French Quarter and primarily attracts tourists. For the locals, Mardi Gras is all about the parades uptown: hours-long processions of colorful floats filled with masked revelers peppered with the best marching bands and the weirdest dance troupes from Louisiana and beyond. Families come in droves with kids, coolers and box after box of Popeyes fried chicken. Beads are thrown, but no one has to debase themselves for them. And while there is lots of drinking, it is as one local friend put it, “A family friendly drunkenness”. It’s no more improper than your average sporting event tailgate party.
Beer is the beverage of choice for most uptown parade-goers (unless you catch the “merry band of hipsters” called Box of Wine, who march carrying the eponymous boxes giving free pours to anyone with a cup) and New Orleans open container laws prohibit glass, so cans are the norm. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on the state of brewing in Louisiana (and beyond) by trying a few canned craft beers that I can’t easily get in Texas. In the interest of curbside refreshment between bouts of scrounging for plastic trinkets thrown from motor vehicles, I gravitated towards pale ales.
Louisiana doesn’t have as extensive a craft beer culture as Texas does, but it’s growing. I’m excited to watch it from afar, since the seeds of my love for craft beer were sown during my formative years in the Crescent City. Fittingly, the control for my taste test was an IPA I know well: Jockamo IPA from Abita Brewing in Abita Springs, Louisiana. This is the brewery that started it all for me; Abita Turbodog and Amber were the first craft brews I ever tasted in the mid-nineties. Today, Abita is the elder statesman of New Orleans craft brewing: ubiquitous and familiar. Extensive and experienced, they brew beer of consistently better quality than any other Louisiana brewery I’ve tried, but their beer isn’t very exciting. They play it safe in recipe creation, offering beers that can be summed up with simple descriptors like “dark” or “bitter” and skewing heavily towards fruit beers – all for the purpose (I believe) of not alienating a market that’s still bi-curious about craft beer. Someone has to do it, and I’m glad they’re taking one for the team by serving as the gateway to craft beer for an entire state. But I haven’t been wowed by them in some time. Jockamo IPA I find very sweet, a bit too raisiny from the interplay of IPA-level hops with too much dark crystal malt (a common flaw in American IPAs, so maybe it’s just me). It’s bitter but has little aroma. It’s not bad, and I can drink a couple at 6.5% ABV, so I’m always happy to find a six-pack of it at Rouses. But it’s not spectacular either.
My second tasting was another 6.5% ABV IPA from relative upstart NOLA Brewing. NOLA seems to be catching on better than any other brewery in the city limits, and that’s great news for anyone who loves New Orleans. The brewers at NOLA seem to have a passion for their craft, offering a varied assortment from a simple blonde ale that I haven’t tried but I’m told is the best in town, to more trendy advanced offerings like a saison and smoked ale. However, I happen to find their output rather inconsistent, and I think their hop-forward offerings skew too much toward inappropriately extreme IBUs in lieu of flavor and aroma. Hopitoulas IPA (named for the notoriously tongue-twisting Tchoupitoulas (“chop-it-TOOL-us”) Street in New Orleans where the brewery is situated) was no different. It was bitter, resiny, and unbalanced. It’s not hard to drink, exactly, but it has little to recommend it over even something as prosaic as Jockamo, unless you want to support smaller breweries. Okay, yeah, I do too. And I will. But I’d feel better if I could find a NOLA Brewing beer I actually love. I’ll keep looking.
The brightest light in my Mardi Gras pale ale flight came unexpectedly from outside the state, from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi has until recently been a desert for craft beer, with no packaging brewery operating in the state from Prohibition to 2003 (Lazy Magnolia). But a handful of new breweries across the state and the legalization of homebrewing last year suggest hope is springing for Mississippians. Devil’s Harvest Pale Ale caught me by surprise, coming from a brewery I – shamefully – had never heard of before last week and being so astonishingly freaking good. Bright and light, crisp and clean, with a citrus-pine aroma and a ton of lemony flavor. It was fantastically easy to drink (good thing it’s only 5.8% ABV). Southern Prohibition boasts Munich in its recipe rather than crystal malt, and they have definitely struck gold. I would gladly order Devil’s Harvest in a bar, even over an old favorite like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Again, we gotta support the little guys. But in the case of Southern Prohibition, I have no reservations about doing so. They clearly know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait until I’m back in a place where they’re sold, so I can try their beer again.