Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

25 August, 2010

Madison Beer Review Plays Cassandra

Jeff Glazer of Madison Beer Review has a couple posts up in which he complains that Wisconsin breweries are lax and resting on their laurels. The first one came Monday and included this shot across the bow:

The point is we, Wisconsin breweries, need to be competing with these breweries (i.e. – breweries from the Chicago area) that have, in the past, not really presented much of a threat. More brands, more creativity, better execution. Bigger regional and national presence. It is no longer feasible to ignore markets outside of Wisconsin.

Glazer's premise is that Chicago brewers will outpace Wisconsin brewers because a huge chunk of Wisconsin college grads move to Chicago, acquire a taste for craft brews from that area, and return here to raise children while they drink Goose Island or whatever brew they can find from ChiTown.

When these people come back to Wisconsin to raise families, (because no one wants their kids in the Chicago School District, right?) what will they drink? Goose Island? Pretty good bet.

It's only a "pretty good bet" because Glazer likes playing amateur sociologist. Yes, lots of grads move to bigger cities including Chicago and have been doing so for quite some time now. Do we have evidence that they all come back here and drink Goose Island? Surmising that they'll drink predominantly Chicago beers upon returning to Wisconsin is pure speculation. It's also speculation that those grads will drink Chicago beers when they are living there. In addition, this presupposes that the Chicago breweries he lists will all have distribution in Wisconsin.

For me, this is a really weak basis for playing Cassandra.

In his post today he chastises the breweries of our state for being "Blissfully ignorant of trends going on in the rest of the universe".

He takes on New Glarus Brewing and questions their latest limited edition "Unplugged" brew, Abt:

Yet even New Glarus, while worldly in its releases, seems ignorant of trends. In the last years it has released the sour Imperial Saison, Berliner Weiss, Old English Porter, and Cran-bic. Yet, in the year of sour, only the softly tartish Enigma approaches sour. Instead, New Glarus chooses to release its Cherry Stout and now, this, an Abt.

it's not exactly the trendiest beer in the world and I don't exactly foresee a coming onslaught of quads and abts in the near future.

Two things here. First, how can Glazer, express any surprise that New Glarus brewed an Abt? It's been over two years since Randy Thiel, the former brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang, arrived at New Glarus to take up the Laboratory Manager mantle there. Ommegang brews Belgian-style ales. To the best of my knowledge, that's all they brew. No IPAs, no lagers, no stouts – just Belgians. With Thiel as brewmaster Dan Carey's right-hand man, no one in their right mind should be at all surprised that New Glarus is brewing Belgian-style beers. Hell, Stone Soup, an Abbey ale is now a year-round beer.

Furthermore, New Glarus just released, albeit in limited R&D doses, two different sour Belgian-style beers - The Gueuze and Bourbon Barrel Kriek. Perhaps one or both of these beers will end up coming out of the R&D lab and become an Unplugged. Or perhaps not. Regardless, it is disingenuous for Glazer to intimate that New Glarus is completely oblivious to the sour beer trend.

New Glarus no longer has a lager as a year-round brew. It has, among others, Stone Soup and Moon Man, a pale ale. Sour beers may be a trend, but pale ales and Belgians are also trends and much bigger ones at that. And Carey's year-round line-up reflects these trends. Anecdotally, when I was at Woodman's this past weekend to get beer, I noticed that Tyranena's IPAs were almost gone. The shelf was totally devoid of Scurvy, in fact. (I went home with some Lakefront Klisch Pilsner.)

The second issue here is Glazer's insistence that Wisconsin breweries adhere to trends, however strictly. Why? I presume this relates to his first post with the idea being that Wisconsin breweries need to brew trendy beers or else breweries from Chicago are going to have a larger overall presence in the market and be, well, trendier.

Commenters at MBR brought up a few of the points that came to mind when I read these posts. For instance, the Chicago metro area is comprised of nearly 10 million people which dwarfs the population of our entire state by nearly twice as much. Chicagoland breweries have a huge hometown market and an attendant media to go along with it. Beer lovers may find themselves in Chicago for work, a convention, vacation, etc. because Chicago is a world-class city that attracts millions from all around the world. Wisconsin, however, is more of a niche. Yeah, we get a lot of people from Chicago vacationing here, but we don't get the numbers of people coming here from outside the Midwest and the United States that Chicago does. Simply put, Chicago area breweries have a huge market from the get-go as well as a lot more publicity engines to help them along.

This is not to say that a brewery from Podunk, Wisconsin (or Podunk anywhere else) can't make a name for itself on a regional and/or national level, but I think it must be more difficult today than in years passed. Glazer holds up New Glarus as a Wisconsin brewery that has made a name for themselves beyond Wisconsin. But NG was started in – what? - 1994? Look at the list of the top 50 craft breweries in 2009. First of all, New Glarus, only distributed here in Wisconsin is #22. That's amazing. Secondly, I'd say that half that list, if not more, is comprised of breweries that either started in the early years of craft brewing, say 1985-1995 or have been around since the 1800s and transitioned from being a large regional to large craft brewery.

The point is that making a name for oneself was a lot easier 15-20 years ago when there were considerably fewer craft brewers around and most were not well-established. Breweries in Chicago have an advantage by virtue of location in getting publicity. There are more media outlets there and they are larger than any we have here. Furthermore there are more opportunities in Chicago for things such as events where beer and foods are paired.

I don't put this forward saying that it's a direct counterargument to Glazer's propositions. But I do think that in a head-to-head match between Wisconsin and Chicago breweries, the latter have some inherent advantages simply by being in a metropolis. It is surely a large part of the success of Chicago breweries in addition to their innovation, creativity, and collaboration.

Plus, while I don't have numbers, I highly suspect that Goose Island benefited greatly after Anheuser-Busch bought a minority share in the company and opened up distribution networks for them.

There's an implication in Glazer's posts that Wisconsin breweries can only gain worldwide recognition and grow if they adhere to trends. The latest is sour beers and it begs the question if any American craft brewery is growing and making a reputation for themselves on the basis of sours. I honestly don't know but I'd bet that sour beers have an incredibly small market and any reputation a brewery gains from them is going to be among a relatively small cadre of beer drinkers and not the public at large. There's not going to be a sour equivalent of Spotted Cow or Fat Tire. Just as Glazer doesn't "foresee a coming onslaught of quads and abts in the near future", I don't foresee an onslaught of sours. Apparently he does because he holds the fact that Wisconsin breweries have more or less avoided this trend as evidence of their stagnation.

If anything, I think it can be argued that the creativity of Wisconsin breweries, on the whole, has suffered because of trends. The tyranny of the pale ale continues. Even Furthermore, a brewery which has made its name on innovation and creativity, is introducing one. Everyone has to have one. And then a double IPA and then an imperial IPA. Then there's Belgians. They're not ubiquitous like pale ales but they're getting there. Rob Larson at Tyranena even brewed La Femme Amère, a "Wisconsin/Belgique-Style India Pale Ale". One can certainly argue that this is an example of Larson's creativity and innovation and I'd agree. But the other side is that he's merely brewing a variation on a theme.

Capital which, if you read the description on the Dark and Pilsner labels, is a Wisconsin lager brewery. Yet Kirby Nelson brews US Pale Ale, Island Wheat, and Rustic Ale. Prairie Fire was an attempt at a Belgian-style brew a couple summers ago. While I can't say for certain, I interpret these beers as being, at least in large part, concessions to trends. I witness Bavarian Lager get put into hibernation while I'd gladly trade all three of the above ales to get it back.

At some point all trends become a confining trap. I'm not arguing that Wisconsin brewers should be unresponsive to trends but rather that, at some point, trends become ends in themselves instead of a means to an end. Beer lovers will suffer when brewers brew beers with trendiness as a goal in itself instead of brewing beers for which they have a passion. Kirby is a lover of lagers. He's the magus of bocks. It's great that wheat from Washington Island ends up in one of his beers, but, to my taste, his passion comes through in his lagers or, perhaps more broadly, in his German-style beers.

I want Kirby and all the other brewers in Wisconsin (and everywhere else, for that matter) to be brewing beers they want to be brewing instead of trying to please the vocal members of Beer Advocate or Jeff Glazer and his notions of trendiness. I want them to brew beers they enjoy, beers they find challenging, and beers that will challenge us drinkers - not to simply jump on a bandwagon.

Jeff Glazer brings up some good points and I agree with some of what he has to say. But I think he begins with a false premise and mindlessly adheres to a be-trendy-or-die attitude yet the whole craft beer phenomenon grew out of a desire not to keep up with trends. I think that he portrays the scene as being dire when it isn't. As one commenter noted, "Capital, Lakefront, Tyranena, Sand Creek, Point, Gray's, Sprecher, and Rush River are all available in Minnesota." South Shore also distributes to Minnesota and the UP as well. Last time I looked at a Chicago liquor store, Capital, Tyranena, Point, Sprecher, Sand Creek, and Lakefront were all there for the taking. Indeed, I found it easier to find Capital than Chicago's own Metropolitan in Lombard one time.

Chicago's Half Acre got their start by brewing their beer up in Black River Falls at Sand Creek's facility. Doug Hurst, Metropolitan's brewmaster, plies his trade in Chicago but hails from right here in Madison. I have to wonder if Chicago brewers view their counterparts in Wisconsin as competitors that need to be eliminated. Perhaps instead of viewing our neighbors to the south as the enemy, we should view them as fellow Midwestern comrades-in-arms fighting against, if I may grab a line from Gene Hunt, the soft, sissy, girlie, nancy, French, bender, Manchester United-supporting poofs out on the West Coast.
|| Palmer, 1:51 PM


I think you're being a little hard on Jeff. When I read his post this morning I felt he was applauding and embracing Wisconsin brewers for being "blissfully ignorant" of trends, not chastising.

And do you really need to pick on him for not having the same inside scoop of the New Glarus R&D that you have?

I don't read anything dire in his language. He writes "As of yet we've managed to sustain more breweries per capita than almost any other state in the nation; our domestic market is supportive and seemingly insatiable. So, here we are, with a stereotypical Wisconsin craft beer - obscurity and independence made extremely well."

All I think he is trying to say is that it would be great if Wisconsin beers could get out of the state borders and get the attention they deserve nationally, however, even if they did get out of the state they may not be embraced because we're wonderfully quirky.
Anonymous Jesse, at 3:30 PM  
Hi Jesse - Firstly, the NG beers are not news. Their arrival was a very public announcement:


I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Glazer did not know this as it was advertised at the Great Taste.

I say he thought the situation was getting bad because of the whole "brain drain" thing. Yes, he is not saying that things are horrible now but that things don't bode well for the future:

"Our market is a great beer market, but it's getting crowded with folks from Chicago (see the list above), Colorado (see all of the great Colorado breweries), California, and the East Coast, not to mention the entire rest of the Midwest."

To me, he was saying that, yeah things are good now, but there will be dire problems down the road unless WI breweries take certain measures.

Heck, maybe I misinterpreted. But, when he wrote: "But being tuned into what it is going on regionally, nationally, and globally, reacting to those things, collaborating, innovating, and being creative is essential for survival" and then starts talking about WI breweries not brewing sours, I got the impression that he was complaining a bit. Not trying to take any breweries to task, but just normal, low-grade complaining. If that's not what he meant, fine. I will certainly retract anything I wrote that is untrue.
Blogger Palmer, at 3:46 PM  
I'd attempted a second post this morning on MadisonBeerReview, but for whatever reason it buckled.

The gist of my carefully crafted comment was first, that Dan Carey (Brewmaster at New Glarus, for those few readers who might not know) is a big fan of sour beers. He has been brewing popular, award winning and even some experimental sour beers all along, including those that Jeff listed. Whether or not the R&D beers, being available only at the brewery, really "count" in the NG lineup in terms of brand awareness, Dan is still steadily producing sours. I see the surprising number of sours at this year's Great Taste, which appears to be Jeff's yardstick for measuring beer trends, as a possible reflection of Dan's tireless dedication to sour beer. If New Glarus, as a nationally respected brewery, despite the lack of national distribution, can make sour after sour, year after year, then perhaps they're on to something. Perhaps other breweries are just starting to catch on.
Blogger brettspiel, at 8:49 PM  
I hear ya. I left a comment and it disappeared as well.

You may be right but I can't think of that many sours from NG that ended up being released to the public. Perhaps I just wasn't paying attention. There was the sour brown ale, the Berliner Weisse, and Enigma - as far as Unpluggeds go. What else has there been?
Blogger Palmer, at 5:37 AM  
Well, Raspberry Tart is a framboise, which is a lambic with raspberries. Belgian Red has some percentage of sour, barrel aged beer blended back in. Neither are what you'd call really traditional (or really sour) sours. Aside from those, there was Wisconsin Cranbic (cranberry lambic) and Old English Porter (recreation of historical soured porter). I'm pretty sure the Cherry Stout is blended as well. Dan's sour usage isn't always front and center, but it is an important part of the process. I'm not sure which non-Unplugged NG beers are blended, but it is pretty common. Guinness and Fat Tire, for example, are both blended with a small percentage of soured beer.
Blogger brettspiel, at 7:12 AM  
I don't think you need to "retract" anything. It is perfectly fine for two people to have different interpretations.
Anonymous Jesse, at 7:17 AM  
Common in other breweries, I mean.
Blogger brettspiel, at 7:25 AM  
Brettspiel - Thanks for the info. I knew Guinness had some soured beer in it but didn't know about Fat Tire. But it brings up a good point. Those 2 beers aren't considered sour beers by the majority of drinkers. However, I'm sure brewers consider things differently.

Another thing about trends is that there's more to it than beer styles, although that is surely the largest. Using locally-sourced ingredients is another trend. Whether is could be helpful in promoting WI beers outside of WI is open, though.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:27 AM  
Jesse - what I meant was that, if Jeff meant something else, then it's only appropriate that I retract something I've written based on a faulty interpretation.

If it's a disagreement based on something else, then, sure, I'll leave it as is.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:29 AM  
Palmer -

Appreciate your analysysisisys of Jeff's post. And I appreciate Jeff's post. Reminders to both keep on our toes and stay creative & adaptive, as well as to not panic just because Wisconsin beers are the best-kept secret on Beer Advocate ;)

A note: You mentioned that "even Furthermore....is releasing one". Our motivation for releasing an IPA is much less about following the dominant trend in brewing and in consumer preference (though that certainly doesn't hurt our feelings) than it is about deepening our commitment to local raw-ingredient producers and purveyors: we are excited about the effort to return hops-growing to Wisconsin and wanted to do our part in support of that effort by building a beer around the crop at Gorst Valley Hops. And it stands to reason that that beer would be an IPA - the standard by which hops varieties and usage are measured.

We will also be substituting hops produced by Simple Earth Hops (between Spring Green and Dodgeville) into our existing recipes as varietals and harvest volume allow.

Best -

Blogger Chris, at 8:30 AM  
Chris - thanks for the comment. Not only for correcting me but also because it came right after my response which mentioned locally-sourced ingredients.

The whole trends thing is certainly a balancing act.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:38 AM  
Balancing act, indeed. For lack of a better way of saying it, there are "trendy trends' - patterns of production and consumption that seem to disappear as quickly as they emerge, and "sustainable trends" - those which have roots in an emergent collective consciousness regarding influencing the cultural, social, environmental and economic world around us. Whoa, that was heavy...

Another thought that I have had while considering both your post and Jeff's: As a producer, it is temping to have a paranoid freak-out while looking over my shoulder at the innovation and success of other local or regional breweries, fearing that we're fighting one another for the attention of a finite pool of drinkers. OR, I can look around and count my lucky stars that the pool of drinkers is growing exactly because of the innovation and success of my neighbors. It's a tired statement these days, but the only growing segment of the brewing industry is the craft segment. As tastes evolve, and the pool of engaged drinkers grows, there's room for Metropolitan and Furthermore. For Half Acre and Surly. For Capital and Revolution. Diversity, variety, innovation, regional appeal all lead to a stronger market.

Blogger Chris, at 9:08 AM  
A lot of this I learned at a New Glarus beer and WI cheese pairing at Fromagination on the square last spring. Dan talked at length about his time spent in Belgium and his love of Belgian and sour beers. Another interesting bit that he brought up, was how much he learned from the winemakers out in CA when he lived out there. Winemakers spend a lot of time blending vintages to get just the right flavor and he's been able to apply their techniques to beer brewing.

(I hope I'm correct about the Fat Tire - I recall hearing an interview with their Brewmaster on a podcast)

Interesting Word Verification: hophompe
Blogger brettspiel, at 10:39 AM  
Brettspiel - thanks again for the info. I suspect we'll be getting Belgians out of NG for some time to come.
Blogger Palmer, at 10:43 AM  
Chris - Heavy indeed. I didn't expect you to get all metaphysical on me here. Next thing I know you're gonna start giving me Platonic cave allegories. ;)

Being a consumer who hasn't done research on the matter, it amazes me that Wisconsin can handle the plethora of brewpubs and breweries that it has. I think there's room for lots of folks' beers on store shelves and in taverns but don't know when or if the market is going to be saturated. It just seems like, when somebody starts selling their beers here, they find a market. And I'm also amazed at how the craft beer market keeps growing - despite the recession.

I think Jeff made good points about WI breweries needing to remain innovative and vital but I think that goes for any craft brewery. I just felt there was this Wisconsin über alles vibe which turned me off.
Blogger Palmer, at 10:59 AM  

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