American craft brewers are a famously congenial bunch. Even as they compete for your beer money, they help one another out, they step in to lend equipment and ingredients to one another, they trouble shoot for each other, and they happily enjoy one another’s beers. Occupying what is still a small corner of the U.S. beer market―about five percent by volume―what they have in common is far more important than what separates them.
Any given cohort coming through the ranks together―learning the craft, launching a new business, testing the economy―has strong connections based on having faced similar challenges at the same time. But there are also strong ties established between craft brewers who enter the field at different times, as one generation speaks to another.
We invited three young but well-established brewers to sit down with three up-and-coming craft brewers and listened in on the three conversations: over lunch, over pizza, and―implausibly― over morning coffee. Here are brief glimpses of where craft brewing is now, and suggestions as to where it might be headed.
Brewing is Business and Passion
Port Brewing Co./Lost Abbey
San Marcos, CA
Considering its propensity for setting trends, Southern California was surprisingly slow to embrace craft beer. Tomme Arthur was there at the beginning of the “overnight sensation,” beginning his brewing career with Pizza Port in Solana Beach in 1996.
“In the mid-nineties, it was a big turning point in San Diego,” he recalls, “because Ballast Point opened up, AleSmith opened up, Stone opened up, and we started to see in our environment, in San Diego, a real shift from lots of other people’s beer in our town to locally-produced beer in our town. And not only in town―in the case of Stone, when they started bottling their beer, and they became the first San Diego brewer to ship beer out of town, on a measurable basis.”
Fast forward to 2008. San Diego has a nationally-recognized beer culture, prominent enough to have hosted the annual conference of craft brewers twice in a four-year period. Craft brewing has a presence further north, in the greater Los Angeles area, where Patrick Rue is opening The Bruery. Like Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey in San Diego, where Arthur now brews, The Bruery focuses on the highest niche of the already high-end craft beer market. In the last six months, Rue’s bottled beer has found distribution in eight states.
“That’s not just remarkable,” observes Arthur. “You have to have great beer, you have a niche for the beer―the types of beer they’re making requires a market much like our Abbey beers―you’ve got to get the beer onto a truck and send it to those places where those beers can work. We’re in many of those same markets for the same reasons: these are great places to sell beer.”
Both brewers decided from the outset their businesses would not rely on low-margin, high-volume sales. But the farther they departed from that classic model of mass-marketed beer sales, the more thoughtful they had to be about how to present their beer to just the right audience.
Rue came into brewing through the self-described homebrewer-beer-geek route, finishing a law degree in the process. “The reason I went to law school was so I wouldn’t have to get a conventional job for a few years and I could delay the inevitable,” he recalls. “I finally got my family’s support for opening the brewery after bugging the crap out of them for a few years. I convinced them that this is what I was destined to do. My dad asked me ‘Do you really want to be poor? You might be happy, but do you want to be poor?’ I said, ‘I don’t need to be poor.’”
Arthur concurs with the idea that a commitment to the art of brewing doesn’t have to condemn the brewery to penury. “My answer would be ‘I plan to be rich and happy!’ Seriously, I don’t think you have to be poor in this business. There are opportunities to be small and niche-y and still make money, to follow what it is you really want to do.”
He cites the breweries that opened in the 1980s, and the changes that have come with each successive wave of brewers to enter the profession.
“If the first generation was Fritz [Maytag] and New Albion, the Widmer Brothers―guys with 25 years of brewing who started making beer that was different from light lagers―then the second includes guys like Adam [Avery] and Rob [Tod, of Allagash], who’ve been brewing beer for over 15 years. They looked to Europe, recreated a lot of traditional styles and kind of regionalized them. You can debate where people like Vinnie [Cilurzo] and myself fall. The third generation are taking it one step further, and trying to make it American.
Rue’s beers, “loosely in the Belgian tradition,” place him squared in the third wave, with innovative flavorings that depart from the norm. “We brew three year-round beers: Orchard White, which is a wit beer with lavender; Black Orchard, what we call a black wit beer, which has chamomile in it; and Saison Rue, which is an eight and a half percent saison with rye and bottled with Brettanomyces, so it gets funky with age.”
Arthur identifies “flavor-driven brewing” as the hallmark of the new generation, and credits Belgian inspiration. “To me, that’s what our third wave is about: we’re starting to see a lot of imperializing, a lot of oak-aging, oxidizing microorganisms for flavor-gain in the beer.
“I don’t like esoteric beers that are being brewed just for the sake of being esoteric,” he continues. “The challenge is not to go too far out there: I agree with Patrick’s point of brewing beers that are approachable. There are opportunities to use non-traditional base ingredients, but to do it in such a way that doesn’t scream ‘Hey, look at what we did just to be different.’ It’s a tenuous line to walk.
Rue adds, “We try to be subtle in our approach, we tell people what’s in our beers, we try not to make ourselves out to be an extreme brewery. I sort of hate that term.”
Arthur sums up what might be the credo of the aspiring, third-wave brewer: “The attitude is Why can’t we? Why shouldn’t we? I suppose, in a very American Manifest Destiny kind of way. Who’s telling me I shouldn’t do that? My accountant? No, nobody is, and that’s a pretty big deal.”
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Short’s Brewing Co.
Three years ago, Joe Short and his fiancé drove from northern Michigan to Delaware on a mission to meet Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. The couple was two years into running his brewpub, Short’s Brewing Co., coping with a remote location, long hours and tight cash flow.
“I’d get up in the morning and make soup for the deli,” Short recalls, “then I’d get the till set for the pub, go downstairs and mash in my first brew, then between running downstairs to hit the pump, I’d be upstairs on the computer trying to balance QuickBooks―it took us two years to get that straight.”
“Leah and I were running the pub like madness, nearly killing ourselves,” he says. “I’d heard that our story was sort of parallel to Sam’s. We had to know, was it always going to be that way, was it going to get better? I wanted some confirmation from someone who had been down that road.”
They drove to the Dogfish plant in Milton and Short walked in with a case of his beer. “I said to the lady ‘I drove all the way from Michigan, and I’d like to talk to Sam, please.’”
The three sat down in the Dogfish conference room to open a couple of beers and talk about life as a brewery owner. Calagione was reassuring. “I thought, it sounds like this guy’s a lot further along than he thinks he is,” he recalls. “I saw his stuff on line and then he brought his beers and shared them with us. I saw a lot of similarities: particularly I saw someone who takes beer seriously and the creative opportunity to express yourself artistically through beer, without taking himself too seriously.”
There are certainly parallels in the “not too seriously” department. Calagione has toured with his brewmaster as the Pain Relievaz, “the world’s first (and probably only) beer-geek hip-hop ensemble,” and conducted beer tastings in the persona of Woody Guthrie. Short celebrated the release of his bottled Huma Lupa Licious IPA in 2007 by filming his nephews as dressed Huma Lupas, in an homage to Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas.
There’s also a penchant for marking special occasions by setting out in small boats with paddles. When Dogfish first decided to distribute its beer, Calagione determined to row the first beer the 18 nautical miles from Delaware to New Jersey.
“It was supposed to be a keg, but I practiced with a keg and flipped the boat, so I crossed with a six pack,” he says. “We’d hand-whittled little replicas of the boat that fit into a 22 ounce bottle, and sent those out to the press, but I forgot to mention the day and time I was going to do it. So I rowed all the way across and there was only one media guy waiting for me. And the account didn’t even chill my beer! There was a case of beer sitting in a warm corner of the bar, no signs anywhere. I rowed 18 fucking miles for that.”
Short’s paddling adventures have been more successful. Last spring, he opened a packaging brewery, the occasion for the first Short’s to Short’s Paddle. “It’s a 24-mile paddle from our brewery in Bellaire to our brewery in Elk Rapids, all by waterway,” he explains. “This is the southern part of the northern chain of lakes. It took us eight hours; the open water stretches were pretty brutal. Now this will be an annual event, the first week in May, on the eve of our anniversary party. This was our fifth.”
With remote locations and small starting budgets, both men have relied on outsize creative projects to let the world know about their beer. But, as Calagione stresses, . “Usually our marketing is all about bringing people to what’s different inside our bottles. A great marketing event around shitty beer is only going to leads to people finding out you make shitty beer.”
But it seems just as likely that the events, the community building, the bocce tournaments at Dogfish or the group paddles at Short’s are also vehicles for overflowing creativity: neither man seems to be happy if he’s not engaged in several projects at once.
The chief creative outlet, however, is the beer. “Exploring fermentation was the whole point of it for me, and discovering what hasn’t been discovered,” says Short. “I’m down the deepest, darkest alleys to see what I can find, and maybe I’ll come out the other side with something shiny and beautiful. I think it’s important for us to remain happy with what we’re doing, to keep the creative stimulus.”
Among Short’s shiny and beautiful things is the 2007 Imperial Beer Series of 13 beers, hand bottled in 750 ml bottles, hand labeled, each with a separate story, with a hand-made case. The 13 beers were conceived and brewed over the course of a year, which culminated in a beer dinner, pairing each beer with food. The beers ranged from a traditionally-inspired imperial porter; to a strong ale with blueberries, strawberries and blackberries; to Bloody Beer, fermented with Roma tomatoes and spiced with tellicherry peppercorns, celery seed, fresh horseradish and dill. There were ales flavored with anise, others with toasted pecans or blue spruce―all in all, a exuberant brewing effort.
As their companies grow―one observing its fifth anniversary and the other nearing its fifteenth―both men know the importance of staying close to the brewing process. “For me, being the evangelist and the cheerleader who shouts and articulates what the company is about, both internally and to the outside world, that’s probably the last job that a good leader should relinquish to somebody else,” says Calagione. “But I’m a brewer, and I never want to relinquish that, either. I always want to be able to call myself a brewer.”
Russian River Brewing Co.
Santa Rosa, CA
Yvan de Baets
Brasserie de la Senne
Early pale ales piqued American beer drinkers’ thirst for hoppy beer, but Vinnie Cilurzo actually attempted to satisfy the hops craving, brewing what is commonly acknowledged as the first double IPA in the 1990s.
As the story goes, this was just the most recent twist in our love affair with hops. This passion for escalating bitterness conquered the country over a couple of decades, crossed international borders, and even taught a thing or two to veteran Belgian brewers, who are now brewing IPAs thanks to the Americans.
Not so fast. Yvan de Baets has unsettling news for fans of Belgian beer: no one has to introduce the Belgians to bitter beer, he insists. The Belgians just need to throw off the palate-deadening results of the past few decades and reclaim their bitter beer heritage.
For de Baets, the co-owner of the tiny Brussels-based Brasserie de la Senne, and Cilurzo, now brewing at Russian River in northern California, a good, bitter profile is an important part of a complex beer. But, for de Baets, the loss of hoppy Belgian beer was a “catastrophe” and a loss of culture. And though he blames big mainstream brewers for “domesticating” beer drinkers’ palates, he’s equally dismissive of Belgian beers that are too strong, too spicy, too sweet and under-hopped.
“We want to fight against the standardization of Belgian beer,” says de Baets. “We hate it when it’s strong, sweet, spicy, fruity. For me, that’s not a Belgian beer―it’s some marketing stuff. This has no real background in the history of Belgian beer; it’s something very recent.”
“When I talk to an old brewer, he complains that the bitterness level has been lowered since the 60s. If you talk to de Ranke [another small, new brewery] and other breweries, they’ll tell you they started brewing because everybody else stopped using hops. At some point, we couldn’t find bitterness in beer anymore.”
He traces a taste for bitterness to nothing less than the origins of humanity, and our evolutionary separation from other animals. He notes that “in nature you have animal-like tastes for sweetness and fattiness, because in nature when an animal faces sweetness or fattiness, they know it contains energy they need to survive, and they also know that what they have in front of them is safe.” Animals also avoid bitter and sour flavors, which could signal poison compounds in plants.
However, de Baets continues, human culture has allowed us to learn to appreciate bitterness and sourness, and even find them a source of health and pleasure. Hence, one important division between humans and other animals is a culturally-acquired ability to enjoy complex bitter and sour flavors.
But he fears that the industrial food and beverage empire tempts us through our baser tendencies. “The agro-food business treats us like animals. They know how powerful instincts are, they know by adding sugar and fat, it will work. And it worked. And in 60 years, they succeeded in destroying the human culture of taste.”
He is fighting back, through the creation of beers that are meant to be “simple but not simplistic―that’s important.” Like Cilurzo’s beers, De la Senne beers cannot be gulped mindlessly: they demand attention, but ultimately depend on flavors in balance.
The two men introduced their distinctive, bitter beers in different countries and over a decade apart. But both were in the position of being somewhat ahead of the consumer curve, faced with bringing the drinking public along with them. Both credit forward-looking bar owners who were willing to pour their beer.
“In San Diego, there’s O’Briens,” says Cilurzo. “Jim O’Brien had taken it to a certain spot in the early 90s before Tom Nichols bought the bar. It was a Bud bar to begin with, and Jim would turn them on to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and our Blind Pig Golden Ale, and he even turned them on to our IPA, and after that the other breweries started making more of these beers. So it happened very organically.”
De Baets finds Brussels bars don’t live up to their vaunted reputation, but singles out one bar, Moeder Lambic, for making a significant contribution to the city’s beer culture. “It is the best bar in town, the best in Belgium actually,” he says. “It’s two young guys with a huge passion for good beer―they are front-line fighters. Because they also educate their customers. It is the only bar in my country where you enter, you look at what is being drunk at the tables, and 90 percent is extremely good beers. It’s really fantastic.”
But, for all that Cilurzo and de Baets have, themselves, been “front-line fighters,” challenging what drinkers expect from beer, both share a deep regard for brewing masters from the previous generation. For de Baets, “the guy I consider my―can I say, my Yoda?―for good beer is Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the father at Cantillon.” His first visit to the Brussels lambic brewery taught him “beer is not simply an alcoholic beverage. It is something with values behind it, human history and culture: it is something extremely rich.”
Cilurzo’s admiration for Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman is more prosaic, but genuine. “Ken Grossman’s great. He had a junk sale at Sierra Nevada,” Cilurzo remembers. “You’d say, ‘Ken I want to buy this,’ and he’d say ‘Oh, man, I’d forgotten about that piece. It’s not for sale.’ But I bought a flowmeter, and he threw in a bunch of extra stuff: I think every American brewery should have a small piece of Sierra Nevada.”