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.