In Pursuit of Humble Beer in the Mile High City

Eating and drinking are two of my favorite pastimes, and Denver, as I just discovered there on a long weekend, is a city that excels in both of these areas. While Colorado is well-known for its bold brews, Denver has a diverse brewing scene, and it is not hard to find good, humble beer. Accompanied by my best friend (a.k.a. my wife), here’s what we found.

Thursday

Dinner our first night was at Mercantile Dining and Provisions, which, with a highly regarded chef, and prime location inside Union Station, was an ideal way to kick off the trip. The menu, which may appear ho-hum at first glance, included several complex dishes that were expertly executed. We shared the mussels, lobster tortellini, gnudi, and grilled pork loin. I accompanied these with the Bohemian Girl Pilsner by Tivoli Brewing Company, and the 8 Second Kölsch by Elevation Beer Company. Both were quite enjoyable, especially the Kölsch.

Following dinner, we stopped at the craft beer institution Falling Rock Tap House. They had two selections from the local Hogshead Brewing on cask. Though Hogshead was on my itinerary for the next day, I couldn’t resist knocking back a beautifully subtle mild ale. As I would later find out, Hogshead is selective in what accounts they will allow to pull their cask ales, though given Falling Rock’s reputation, it should come as no surprise that it is served there.  

I believe Falling Rock was also pouring the well-known Slow Pour Pils by Bierstadt Lagerhaus. Bierstadt also takes their beer very seriously, and will only distribute to local accounts that commit to properly pouring their brew. This means, among other things, the pils must be in a proper glass, and, as the name implies, it must be a slow pour (a three step pour that takes about 5 minutes). While I was also looking forward to trying Bierstadt’s brews at their brewery, I did not have one at Falling Rock. In hindsight, that was a mistake.

Cask ale at Hogshead Brewery

Cask ale at Hogshead Brewery

Friday

Hogshead Brewery may have been the stop I was most looking forward to on this trip. With that excitement came the fear that it would be a disappointment. It was not. Their tasting room is small, and though it is supplemented with some outdoor space, it was raining on and off while we were there. So, the room was cozy at happy hour with a mix of patrons of varying ages.

We had two cask ales, including the Barge Mild and the Cook Lane (best bitter). On the draft side, based on the name alone, I had to get the Downtown Julie Brown Ale, which was excellent (wubba wubba wubba), as was the Chin Wag (ESB), Mother in-Law and Divine Right. Hogshead does these traditional English ales well, and they clearly have an audience in Denver. I cannot overstate how pleasant it was to sit in this taproom a knock back a few subtle, low-ABV pints. Simply put, the craft beer community needs to be encouraging more establishments like this across the country.

After a stop for dinner, we visited Prost Brewing Company. Prost, for the most part, makes traditional German brews. There were a few nods to current trends with an IPL, a Whiskey Doppel and a kombucha. I opted for a keller pils, and my wife got the dunkelweizen. Both were pleasant, and the view of downtown was fantastic. Prost is very close to a trendy food/drink hall called Avanti. Avanti is also known for its view of the city, and the food and drink lineup is good. If you’re in the neighborhood, my recommendation would be head to Prost.

Saturday

Breakfast burrito at Smok

Breakfast burrito at Smok

Saturday morning brought us to The Source Hotel + Market Hall. New Belgium has a small brewing operation there, and Crooked Stave has a taproom. I would’ve been happy to have a Fat Tire Amber or Von Pilsner in their homeland to add to my list of humble beer stops, but unfortunately it was 10AM, and both were closed. The Source, as well as the nearby Zeppelin Station, bill themselves as shopping and arts destinations, in addition to food and drink, but they really seem to excel most on the latter two. Not a critical stop if you’re in town for a short visit, though my brisket breakfast burrito from Smok was delicious (but it did not beat the breakfast burrito I had the day before at Taqueria La Familia in The Highlands neighborhood, which I devoured before I could take a picture.)

After some strolling in the RiNo neighborhood, we stopped by Bierstadt Lagerhaus, which I was eagerly anticipating. Again, I was not disappointed. Their Slow Pour Pils is perfect. There really is not a whole lot else to say about this beer beyond that. It is by far one of the best in the country. I followed this up with a collab smoked helles (I don’t recall who the collaborating brewery was). It was excellent. I wish I could’ve stayed there all afternoon to work through their menu.

The one unfortunate thing about Bierstadt Lagerhaus is their welcome message on their website’s homepage. “Apparently, it is allowable to add strawberries, gummy worms, pizza, and all matter of other things to a “beer.” Each to their own. You do you. We aren’t ones to judge.” This strikes me as an odd and negative way to welcome people to your business. This brewery would be an absolute grand slam for me, but this message leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 

A few blocks away, worlds collided for me at Ratio Beerworks. The owners of Ratio come from the same music scene I have been so passionate about since the 90’s, and the names of their beers honor many classics from that era.

Two of my all-time favorite records

Two of my all-time favorite records

From their menu, I chose two beers with names that are near and dear to my heart. Dear You, a French saison, is named after an album by the recently reunited Jawbreaker. It was controversial when it was released because it was the band’s first on a major label. They lost a lot of old fans who cried “sellout”, and didn’t gain many new ones. I loved the album, and these days, with Jawbreaker’s reunion, it has been revisited, and being more warmly received than it originally had been. Younger me may have cried “sellout” over the use of juicy American hops to this beer, but I found it refreshing, and it actually worked quite well for me.

Fugazi’s debut album, ‘Repeater’, was a groundbreaking release in the American punk and hardcore scene. As hardcore was moving in a direction of male aggression, Minor Threat’s lead singer began a new project that broke away from an overly aggressive sound and scene, to one that was passionate and intelligent. Ratio named their extra pale ale after this album. This is one of those flagship kind of beers I could happily crush all day at a barbecue.     

While at Ratio, I had the good fortune of meeting Tristan Chan, their Marketing Manager. In addition to his work at Ratio, he is also the creator of Porchdrinking.com. Tristan shared his knowledge of the Denver scene, and gave us a quick tour of Ratio’s facility. I was most impressed when I learned about their support of the arts and charitable contributions to the community.

Enjoying the view at Ratio Beerworks

Enjoying the view at Ratio Beerworks

Ratio’s love for the arts is further reflected on the facade of their building, which has a wonderful mural. Same goes for their neighbor down the street, Our Mutual Friend (OMF), where we stopped after dinner that night. Their menu is fairly diverse, with humble beers like a keller pils, a mild, and a brown ale, and more on the other side of the spectrum with a variety of IPA’s, sour beers, et. al. Staying focused, I had the pils and the mild, which were superb. I really wanted to try their brown, with house roasted malt, as well as several of their wild and sour beers, but I had to restrain myself, a little.

 Sunday

Contrasting Bierstadt Lagerhaus’ website, the message on the website of TRVE Brewing states “our goal is to give you a rad place to hang out and drink killer beer…Our beers may or may not exactly adhere to any particular guidelines – we’re style blasphemers and category agnostics – but you can count on the fact that we’ll always brew damn good beer.” Known as the heavy metal brewery, TRVE is an inviting space, and their patrons vary widely. While the passion for metal is not a gimmick, it shouldn’t scare anyone away.  

I had their keller pils and grisette, which I really enjoyed. In addition to these, I was thrown a curveball upon entering their taproom when I saw they had a number of cans from Austin Texas’ Live Oak. Live Oak is one of the few breweries making the Polish-style grodziskie beer, which I greatly enjoy, and rarely see. I had to have one of those.  

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Denver lived up to it reputation as a great beer city. While I didn’t make it to all the places I wanted to visit, we certainly did pretty good for a couple of days. From a humble beer perspective, it was great to see places like Hogshead and Bierstadt being warmly embraced by their community.

Kevin Kain
Sustainable, Sour and Terroir on the Rise in Vermont

Bubbling up in post haze-craze Vermont are a number of beers that are truly expressing terroir.  These beers may very well be ushering in the next chapter in the history of Vermont brewing, a state with beautiful landscapes, charming towns and laid-back residents. Being artisanal, local, and sustainable is in Vermonters DNA, and this is increasingly beginning to show in the local brewing scene.

Despite the fact that Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state, brewing here has a checkered past. There were no breweries in the state for over 100 years, in part due to the fact that Vermont was one of the leaders in the temperance movement. Breweries disappeared in Vermont well before the nation adopted the Eighteenth Amendment. Fast forward to today and the craft beer industry is one of the top economic drivers in the state.

Given the culture of supporting local businesses and being sustainable, it should come as no surprise that many of these new breweries have made efforts to incorporate local agricultural products into their beer, or are growing the ingredients themselves. Bent Hill Brewery in Braintree, and Kingdom Brewing in Newport, are growing and harvesting their own hops, berries, and other ingredients. They also make maple beers, perhaps the most notable of local ingredients, which has found its way into many local beers over the years, especially by Lawson’s Finest Liquids.  

About those sours

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Far from the status quo, Backacre Beermakers in Weston do not release a new can of DIPA every week. Backacre is a blendery that makes one beer, a sour golden ale that they release a few times each year in green 750ml bottles (House of Fermentology in Burlington is another blendery, though it is partners with Foam Brewers just down the road). Their wort is their recipe, but it is produced by a nearby brewery, which Backacre then ages in oak barrels. They have no intentions of making any other beer, and I respect the hell out of that.

Embracing a contemporary aesthetic with 16 oz cans, Hermit Thrush Brewery in Brattleboro is making a fantastic array of wild ales, and they’re all about terroir. From their website:

Wild native yeasts offer an experience steeped in Vermont’s complex terroir, the basis for all that we dream up. We exclusively use our own wild yeast and native mixed-fermentation cultures from Brattleboro, which develop our signature fruity, phunky, and tart flavors, giving our sour beers a distinctly Vermont taste you won't find anywhere else.

Brattleboro was specifically chosen by the brewery’s President and brewer, Christophe Gagné, after he scouted numerous locations, testing ambient yeast. According to Joan Bulzacchelli, Events, Tasting Room, and Sales Coordinator for Hermit Thrush (and a Committee member of the Vermont Brewers Association), “We don't use any cultured strains; we are proud to say that we've never bought yeast.”  Four Quarters Brewing on the opposite end of the state in Winooski, is also making wild beers with ambient yeast, though it’s just a portion of their output. They also incorporate local produce. 

Sustainability is very important to Hermit Thrush. They’ve adopted an environmental policy, become a member of Vermont’s Green Brewery Cohort (an initiative created through the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation that fosters sustainability in brewing operations by facilitating relationships and discussions between like-minded brewers), and they created a Sustainability Coordinator position to help achieve their goals.  

Vermont brewers are indeed providing examples of sustainability tools recently promoted by the Brewers Association (BA). The BA has created benchmarking tools for breweries to measure and track their level of sustainability, as well as a series of manuals on the following topics: energy, solid waste, water and wastewater, and design and build strategies. Hermit Thrush is using the benchmarking tool, and they have committed, as required by their involvement in the Green Brewery Cohort, to reducing their energy use by at least 5% by 2020. With all they are doing, I’m sure they will have no problem achieving this goal.

Freak Folk Bier in Burlington is about to burst on to the scene with their wild ales. Owners Lillian MacNamara and Ryan Miller have 20 years of professional brewing experience, with impressive resumes (Hill Farmstead, Otter Creek, Magic Hat, Kent Falls, Tired Hands, and others). MacNamara is currently the Head Brewer for Queen City Brewery in Burlington, and Freak Folk is setting up shop in the same building. They will actually be brewing their wort on the Queen City system, and then piping into a new space they created to inoculate and barrel their brew.

Miller notes a strong sense of local pride, as well as a purist mentality when it comes to craft beer culture in Vermont, adding “goof ball trends aren't as popular as they are in some other places I've been.” Reflecting on his experience elsewhere “I’ve had to brew some of the most outlandish beers I could think of….I do not think that type of stuff would fly here - at least not yet.”  

While they are focused on mixed culture, barrel fermented and bottle conditioned beer right now, Freak Folk won’t rule out making other styles down the road. Time will tell how things evolve. As they state on their website “our goal is to remain a humble little company and to grow organically.” It doesn’t get much more Vermont than that.

Kevin Kain
Flagship February…That Escalated Quickly
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I was planning on waiting a few days to post about Flagship February to let other more eloquent folks circulate their comments, and then I was simply going to post a few of my favorite flagships.  However, within a few short hours on day one, Twitter, of course, was host to a little kerfuffle with folks hurling insults at each other, typing in caps, and making accusations about the intentions of this seemingly innocuous endeavor.  So, before I get to my flagships, just a little bit about this nonsense.

For background, in early January, beer writer Cat Wolinski posted an article on VinePair about modern beer drinkers that incessantly search for new beers, instead of returning to flagships.  A day later, author Stephen Beaumont tweeted the suggestion to create “Flagship February” as an opportunity to celebrate, promote, and enjoy the flagship brews that were previously held in high regard, but are now often overlooked.  Within days, the idea had spread throughout the beer community and beyond, discussed in articles by Food and Wine, Forbes and others. 

Over the month of January, Beaumont worked to promote this idea around the globe, by getting breweries, bars, et. al. to sign on and participate.  He further began to develop a website and content for that site.  In order to fund this project, Beaumont accepted sponsorship. Not a big deal.

Once the Flagship February site launched, author Andy Crouch tweeted “I thought the #FlagshipFebruary thing was an organic social media idea, didn’t realize it had sponsorships from the big legacy brewers.  Not a knock really, just an observation.”  This wasn’t a harsh criticism at all, but it sparked some heated dialogue.  The Good Beer Hunting Twitter account had a strong reaction, among several other tweets, it posted “STOP TRASH TALKING WRITERS FOR TRYING TO CREATE A VIABLE BUSINESS AND MAKE IT THROUGH THIS CRAZY LIFE”.  Woah.  Easy slugger.

Beaumont himself responded, and essentially noted that he was simply not trying to lose too much money for this effort.  Fair enough.  I won’t hate on him for getting sponsors. However, it was a poor choice to have Sam Adams Boston Lager as the very first flagship to be featured on the website as Sam Adams is one of the sponsoring companies, and since Sam Adams has caused so much derision in the beer community over the years.  A footnote to his post notes “Today’s flagship beer was chosen by the individual writer with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.”  He also tweeted that he had written the Sam Adams piece before the company was one board as a sponsor.  Nonetheless, with a whole month to post different beers, it would’ve made sense to choose something else for the first flagship in order to avoid the appearance of shenanigans. 

Putting all the nonsense aside, I like the idea of this effort to remind people to buy a six pack of an old favorite every once in a while.  And, there has been some humor sprinkled in here.  Jim Plachy, himself affiliated with Good Beer Hunting, tweeted in the midst of the heated exchanges “The first rule of #FlagshipFebruary is don’t talk about #FlagshipFebruary”.  Lew Bryson, prior to the launch of the site, was quoted in the Forbes article saying “I remember some beer snob bartender telling me ‘I don’t think Sierra Nevada has much to say anymore.’  Yeah, actually, it does.  And one of the things it’s saying is ‘Shut up and drink me.’”  Exactly!  And with that, here are a couple of flagships that I intend on having this month.  I hope others will be enjoying them as well.

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Victory Prima Pils – During my first year of graduate school, I lived a few hundred feet from an excellent beer bar in Albany, NY called Mahar’s (RIP).  The crowd was typically a mix of older beer nerds and college kids who didn’t know too much about beer, but were trying.  Unfortunately for those college kids, the owner and one of the regular bartenders weren’t the most welcoming.  One day I saw two kids order a black and tan.  The bartender unenthusiastically asked “ok, how do you want it?”  Not expecting this question, and clearly unsure of how to respond, one of them muttered “Guinness and Bud, I guess.”  The bartender curtly replied “we don’t have Budweiser, and if we did, I would never use it to make a black and tan.” 

Anyway, one day I ordered Prima Pils, and several of the elders laid into me about how I was a hophead and how those types of beers will destroy your palate.  (They must be really disappointed with what has happened in the 15 years since then.)  I didn’t really give a shit what they thought, because that beer was and is delicious.

There’s no question that Prima Pils is a classic.  It’s delicious, and it never fails to disappoint.  With the revival in recent years of pilsner in the craft beer community, it is easy to give credit to newer takes on pilsner, often with an added hoppy character.  But we can’t forget Victory, who have been doing this for over 20 years.

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Captain Lawrence Freshchester – Captain Lawrence opened shortly after I returned from graduate school to my native Westchester County, New York.  It was interesting to visit their original tasting room at that time as the whole tasting room scene was evolving nationwide.  Captain Lawrence’s tasting room was often packed with all kinds of people, pounding as many samples as they could, and it was clear that the culture in the beer community was changing as all different kinds of people (i.e. not just beer nerds) found breweries as a new place to socialize.  Fortunately, the laws in New York have changed, and Captain Lawrence can now serve full pints. 

While trends have come and gone since that time, Captain Lawrence has evolved to remain relevant, and has demonstrated how well they can do a variety of styles.  In particular, they have mastered sour ales, stouts, porters and IPA’s.  They’re also on the pastry game, particularly with the recent “Fudgie the Beer”, a stout made in collaboration with Carvel.

While I enjoy many of the brews in Captain Lawrence’s portfolio, their pale ale, called “Freshchester” will always be my favorite.  It was on tap at my wedding, and it is my go-to for many different occasions, especially backyard barbeques.  For me, it is the perfect balance of malt and hops.  I greatly appreciate the fact there it has some amber color in there with crystal malt, especially in an era where crystal/caramel malts have completely disappeared from many breweries across the country.  I would love to see this in a can.

Stoudts – Pennsylvania, particularly eastern PA, has always had a pretty respectable brewing scene over the years, and Stoudts has long been one of my favorites.  Founder and brewmaster Carol Stoudt was the first female brewmaster in this country after prohibition, and her commitment to her craft, and her phenomenal work has solidified her as a legend. While they make a variety of beers, I find they excel most with lagers.  While I love their pils, it’s the Gold Lager that is my favorite.  It currently has a 3.9 rating on Beer Advocate.  Applying the curve that is necessary to account for the imbalance given by trendy beer drinkers, this translates into a 5.0.  When Stoudts opened, most US breweries were, to varying degrees, trying to copy styles of beer from the British Isles, Belgium and Germany, with mixed results.  Stoudts has been consistently making a helles since then that is everything you want it to be.  I hope they continue to do so for many more years to come.

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Troegs Hopback Amber Ale – Troegs gets a lot of praise and attention for Nugget Nectar, which is what they refer to as an “imperial amber ale”.  It’s good, but I prefer their year-round HopBack Amber Ale, which is similar to the Nugget Nectar, but I find it has greater balance.  With a lower ABV than Nugget Nectar, it’s much easier to pick up a 6-pack of it for Flagship February to throwback this Friday night without having to worry about too much pain the next day.

Newburgh Brown Ale – This is an excellent, malty brew that’s hearty, but not too heavy.   Just what a brown ale is supposed to be.  I recently made a beer cheese with this ale, and it was amazing.  I buy this several times a year, particularly in the Autumn, and partially because it’s hard to find darker beer that is fresh with low-abv.  This is not to imply that I buy it as a last resort.  Far from it.  I’m grateful to live within the brewery’s distribution network.  I would love to see this with nitro, or on cask.

Urban Chestnut Zwickel – Mentioned in my prior post on lagers, this zwickel has been a favorite of mine for the last few years.  This traditional take on a German zwickel is a smooth ride, and it’s hazy.  People seem to like that these days.  It’s refreshing, but also has a strong backbone, making it a brew that can work year-round.

 
Kevin Kain
Understanding and Hope for UK Imports
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Whenever I gaze at the selection in a beer store, I often wonder what happened to all the UK ales people in the craft beer community used to cherish.  I’ve had a few assumptions, but I wanted to see if there were other factors at hand.  I reached out to some breweries, distributors and retail vendors to get their input.  Most confirmed that growth in the domestic US market has had a significant impact, but there were some other interesting points, as well as thoughts on the future market.

But first, it must be said that while the change in the US market has been an obvious factor, few of those that I reached out to gave recognition to the fact that the UK market has changed as well.  The overwhelming majority of beer drinkers in the UK now drink macro lagers like Stella Artois, Budweiser and Carlsberg.  Meanwhile, growth in the craft beer sector has been dominated by breweries mimicking trends in the US (which is funny since the craft beer movement in the US itself was largely inspired by the UK).  Traditional ales have become passé, despite efforts from folks like the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).  If these ales are struggling at home, it’s certainly going to impact what they are exporting for others to consume.

Peter Scholey, from the UK’s Coniston Brewery, points to the 2008 financial crisis as a turning point in demand from the US for their product.  He notes that Coniston saw a 30% decline in exports to the US at that time.  The crisis didn’t put a significant dent in the number of US breweries, growth of which had been somewhat stagnant from 1998 to the time of the crisis, hovering around 1,500 breweries, according to the Brewers Association.  However, that number began to skyrocket shortly after the crisis.  As disposable incomes were increasing, consumers began to have many more choices than what was available before the crisis, and a new generation of craft beer enthusiasts entered the market.

Adding to this, Scholey also believes the prevalence of large brands such as Bass and Boddingtons, “badly brewed” in the US led to the “persistent notion….that British beer is poor flavourless rubbish.”  It is these larger brands that we continue to find today at English-style pubs here in the US.  Further, most craft beer bars rarely ever have UK ales available (of course there are some, and I must make a shout out to Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn that has been carrying Coniston, and many other great brands for years).

Theakston’s, brewers of classic ales like Old Peculiar, fell victim to mergers between importers.  This resulted in them no longer having a company bringing them into the United States, according to Mike Morris, their export manager.      

On the retail side of things, Bill Kuhn, Director of Operations for the beer emporium Half Time Beverage (with two locations in New York State), noted “we’ve had a hard time sourcing Irish, Scottish, and some English brands that were previously staples in both stores leading to a bit of a smaller selection…We’ve had to be much more conscious of our long term buying strategies to ensure we are putting in preorders to secure allocations when they do come to the market.”  Half Time is one of the few places in my region that carries several UK brands, and if they are having trouble getting their hand on these products, then widespread availability is not going to happen easily.

Some don’t seem to be making much of an effort to fight the trend.  Others are, and one method to bolster business is to ensure the quality of their product when it hits the market here in the US.  This means controlling and monitoring elements through the shipping process, as well as carefully selecting an importer.  Shelton Brothers, Coniston’s importer, tries to make sure kegs and bottles are filled as close to the shipping date as possible, pre-sell products that need to move fast, particularly casks, and ship “super hoppy” beers by air.  Coniston’s follows this up by periodically visiting locations in the US to ensure the quality meets their standards.

B. United International uses temperature-controlled tanks that were specifically made for them.  They are able track the product’s location and temperature from the time it leaves the brewery to when it arrives at their facility in the States.  They are both kegging and canning beer this way.  Larger brands such as Samuel Smiths and Wychwood (Marston’s) are also jumping on the canning bandwagon, though their products are canned in the UK.  Younger brands like Thornbridge are also beginning to can, but those haven’t made it to the US market yet.

Coniston has done some canning for domestic distribution, but does not believe cans would ship well, and also believes that US customers expect to see British ales in pint bottles.  Aside from believing that the quality of the canned product is “significantly inferior” to bottles.  Theakston’s also believes the market, at least in the UK, remains in bottles. There’s clearly a difference of opinion between those from the older generation making traditional ales, and newer breweries embracing the US trends and packaging.

I think the innovative methods being employed by B. United could have the ability to begin to sway some consumers toward UK imports.  With a guarantee on quality and freshness (they provide dates on the can), it gives consumers much more comfort in making purchases.  While B. United is only working with a handful of brands at this time (in several different countries), there is the potential for a great amount of growth using this model. 

Perhaps a new interest by some US brewers in traditional UK ales might spark growth as well (putting us in the cyclical motion of beer trends between the US and the UK).  Scholey believes that English style beer will be the next big thing in the US, adding that it is debatable if this will benefit Coniston’s.  Ultimately, he decides it will probably benefit them because US brewers “will be unable to resist the urge to spoil a good bitter by adding cucumber skins and something citrusy to make it bigger and less drinkable.”  That may very well happen, but there are already a number of US breweries making traditional UK ales, such as Bonn Place Brewing Company, Machine House Brewery and Yorkshire Square Brewery.

Regarding the cyclical nature of the industry, my own selfish concerns about the disappearance of British ales might be shortsighted.  Mike Morris at Theakston’s supports this by noting “we’ve been brewing ales in the UK for a few hundred years so we can wait for the fashion to change again!”  Fair enough.

(Many thanks to the kind folks at Coniston, Thornbridge, Theakston’s, B. United International, Shelton Brothers, and Half Time for taking the time to answer my questions.)

Kevin KainComment
Lager Trends and Breweries to Look Out for in 2019

For the past couple of years, many people have been saying “this is the year for lager”.  I’m not sure if it happened, if it didn’t happen, or if it came and went.  Craft lager has slowly grown, and I suspect it will continue to do so in 2019. 

For the most part, the lagers we have seen have fallen into two categories.  There are old-school style brews made in a traditional manner, and new school ones have embraced modern American hop trends.  There has been little variation from those two, so maybe we will start to see a little more experimentation in 2019 (for better or worse). 

Industrial Arts made two of my favorite brews in 2018 that were both interesting lagers.  The first was Summer Landscape, a lager brewed with spelt.  The second was Ommekase, a Japanese rice lager brewed in collaboration with Brewery Ommegang.  Both were fantastic.  More experimentation with grains could be interesting.  While hazy lagers exist in the form of kellerbier, perhaps New England India Pale Lagers could blow up this year?  Brut Pils have already popped up.  Maybe we’ll see more of those.  What about pastry pils (again, for better or worse)? 

There are many lists out there for the best lagers to drink.  The following is a list great breweries to look out for this year that focus largely, some entirely, on lager.  Kudos to them for committing themselves to brewing something that is harder to nail, takes more time to produce, and is not as sexy as DDH DIPA’s and pastry stouts. Go out and show them some love this year.

Jack's Abby Craft Lagers – Jack’s Abby started making their new school lagers in 2011 in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Their crisp, hoppy lagers helped introduce a new generation of craft brew drinkers to lager.  Since opening, they have expanded, and now make more traditional lagers as well.  The brewery is 100% committed to lagers, but did create an offshoot called Springdale in 2016, which is making, ales, barrel-aged and other experimental brews.  But the barrel aging isn’t limited to Springdale, as Jack’s Abby is also barrel aging lagers.  Not missing the rise in popularity of kellerbier, there’s also a whole line of releases dedicated to this style.  Jack’s Abby continues to grow, and is expanding their footprint in Massachusetts, with a new taproom coming in 2019 to downtown Boston.

Source: notchbrewing.com

Source: notchbrewing.com

Notch Brewing –In Salem, Massachusetts, Notch focuses on sessionable beers, with lager, pale ale, wheat ale, bitter all under 5.0% abv.   Within Notch’s lager portfolio, there are several Czech-style brews, and to show their commitment to doing this properly, they have installed a proper Czech-style side-pull tap system in their taproom. Dabbling in stronger, voll bier, they have created the Voll Projekt, a side-project creating beers with some higher abv.   It’s worthwhile to mention that they have a mobile beer garden which appeared at several public events in 2018, and can be hired for private events in Massachusetts.  I’m trying to see if I can get them to come to New York.

Von Trapp Brewing – I kind of dismissed von Trapp before trying their beers, and that was a big mistake on my part.  Von Trapp, neighbors to the Alchemist and Lawson’s, is an all-lager operation making some fantastic brews.  For the most part, they are on the traditional side, but they have a few beers that are more in line with modern American hop trends.  They opened a new facility in 2015, making 36,000 barrels per year, so they have been able to expand their footprint in the Northeast.  They also just announced a redesign for their packing of canned beers, and it appears will be canning more of their core brands, currently available by bottle only.  I suspect there will be a lot of these being crushed with brats at backyard barbeques this year.

Dovetail Brewery – According to the Brewer’s Association, Chicago now has more breweries than any other US city, and Dovetail has been making some of the city’s best lagers since 2016.  I was fortunate enough to visit last year.  They primarily make German lagers, but dabble in other “continental” styles (gueuze, grodziskie, spelt bruin among others).  Dovetail began canning late in 2018, and hopefully those cans will help spread the lager love in 2019.

Urban Chestnut Brewing Company – An old-school brewery that has embraced the pounder can.  The brewery’s co-owner and brewmaster, Florian Kuplent, is from Germany, got his start professionally brewing in Germany, and then went on to brew at several other locales around the globe, including several years for Anheuser-Busch.  He stuck around in St. Louis to open Urban Chestnut in 2011, and returned to his homeland to open Urban Chestnut Hallertau in 2015.  All their brews are fantastic, but the zwickel really stands out.

Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company. Source: https://www.instagram.com/theabgb/

Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company. Source: https://www.instagram.com/theabgb/

Austin Beer Garden Brewery - The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (or, if it’s easier, the ABGB) started making beer in 2013.  In addition to the brewery, ABGB’s facility also includes a music venue and dining.   Their community-minded “Hell Yes Project” donates 5% of their profits to their partners that help improve their community, and the people in it.  For three years in a row, they have brought home the brewpub of the year award from the Great American Beer Festival.

Occidental Brewing Co. – Portland, Oregon is becoming a hotbed for lager beer, and Occidental has been cranking out delicious ones since 2011.  In 2018, they expanded their footprint, opening a new facility in Nevada.   Portland once held the title for most breweries in America.  While that title may now have gone to Chicago, breweries like Occidental are helping to create diversity in the Beervana brewing scene that helps keep it one of the best beer cities in the country.

Zoiglhaus Brewing Company – Portland, a community-minded city, has a brewery that has embraced the nearly extinct, community-minded brewing tradition of the Zoiglhaus from northeast Bavaria.  While they do have a couple of ales, the lagers are where it’s at. 

Wayfinder Beer – While not shying away from the NEIPA haze craze, Wayfinder’s real passion is for lager (and they also have the Czech-style side pull taps).  The Portland brewery’s three-way collaboration with Heater Allen and Modern Times called “Terrifico”, made Bloomberg’s 2018 11 best beers of the year list.  Not bad for a brewery that just opened in 2017.

Heater Allen Brewing – Located southwest of Portland, Heater Allen is making highly-regarded lagers.  While the focus is German and Czech style lagers, they do make a couple ales.  But these are not the “we made an IPA for your hophead friend for when you visit the brewery” kind of ales.  They stick with the German tradition, making an altbier, kolsch, and a hefeweizen. 

In addition to these American breweries, I’m excited to get more of the German brews being canned in Connecticut by B. United International.  While primarily an importer, B. United also has an affiliated brewery, and now cans beer for several overseas breweries through its Tank Container Project.  These include Schlenkerla’s helles, and St. Georgenbraeu’s kellerbier.  When you get your hands on these brews, which include a canned on date, you know you are getting a quality product.

Finally, Bamberg, Germany’s Mahr’s Brau gave their packaging a redesign last year, and it looks great.  They are also canning now, with dates on the packaging, which is also fantastic.  They have evolved their brand to meet modern tastes, but the liquid inside remains fantastic, traditional beer, which they have been brewing since 1670.

Prost!

Kevin KainComment
Non-Compete? Not a Problem.

Leaving a popular brewery to make unpopular beer

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Dan and Taylor Suarez opened Suarez Family Brewery in 2016, in bucolic Columbia County, New York.  At the time, an outsider might have seen this as an odd location, but the landscape is strikingly similar to northern Vermont, where Dan spent several years working for Hill Farmstead Brewery, as well the locations of many breweries that have given him inspiration in rural Belgium and Germany.   However, regarding the beer, Suarez Family Brewery was set in a totally different landscape from his prior employer.

Suarez made it known before opening that they would be making simple everyday ales and lagers, and country ales.  Without saying it, they were also saying they were not going to be brewing big IPA’s like those that Hill Farmstead is so well known for.  This piqued my interest since it scratches where I itch (in addition to the fact that my cousins have an orchard just a few minutes from the brewery), many others were interested too. 

Was this a sign that the tide is turning against the popularity of big, bold brews versus humble beer?  Probably not.  As Taylor Suarez notes “the hazy NE IPA is a craze for a reason – they are an easier style to nail”, and bold brews can often hide flaws.  Pilsners, lagers, bitters, and other humble beers require great skill to do well, and have little to hide behind.  While there has been some recent attention given to pilsner, she does not see it as an enduring trend unless there are enough people doing it well.  Gradually though, there do seem to be more and more breweries that are being bold enough to make what they are most passionate about, despite current trends in the market. 

Around the same time Suarez Family Brewery opened, Mark Fulton, Director of Brewery Operations at Maine Beer Company, decided to return to where he grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia.  After working for years making highly sought after IPA’s, Fulton decided he wanted to switch gears a little and return to making the styles he was most passionate about.  Fulton opened Reason Beer with a couple of childhood friends, and a visit to their website, for me, is a nice throwback to an earlier era when a brewery simply named a beer based on its style, albeit, with a modern aesthetic. This is the story for their core beers.  Rotating beers are more in line with recent trends, aka, the brews we make to stay in business.   

Source:    reasonbeer.com

While Fulton wanted to break away from the IPA heavy lineup Maine was making, he found Maine’s notable bottle style was just the right fit for his sessionable brews.  The volume is spot on (and the beers are delicious), but the vessel, for sale by the individual bottle, seems in contrast to the notion of sessionable beer being one that can be enjoyed by having several at a time.  Reason has recently released a couple IPA’s in 16oz. cans, and it would be fantastic if some of their core beers could make it into the same format.    

Over in St. Louis, the highly anticipated Rockwell Beer Co just opened.  Rockwell co-owner Andy Hille, previously of Perennial Artisan Ales, opened the brewery, in part, to focus on classic styles (see feastmagazine.com).  This is somewhat in contrast to Perennial, which tends to avoid classic styles, and is quite popular for its big stouts and experimental Belgian style ales. While it just opened, given the anticipation for the brewery, and the experience of the brewers, it is likely that Rockwell will find success.

Diamondback Brewing Company in Baltimore has taken a different path to brewing humble beer.  Started in 2014 brewing by contract, opening a brick and mortar in 2016, Diamondback quickly gained popularity, catering to the market for big IPA’s.  However, a 2017 post on their website speaks of a visit to Suarez and other northeastern breweries as life changing and inspirational. While I don’t think you will see IPA’s off their menu anytime soon, a recent Good Beer Hunting podcast episode indicates a strong desire to focus on creating everyday beer moving forward.

Relying on Dedicated Staff

For Suarez, Taylor notes their small staff has been “critical” to their success, adding “the main parameter for growth is 'we'll only grow as much as we can while keeping the same number of staff'... Mostly we're just trying to ensure that everyone here (including us) has a good life / lifestyle - working hard doing something that they find interesting (but not taking it too seriously), having some fun doing it, and getting enough time off to explore and rejuvenate.”  This model may work better in retaining employees in a profession where brewers rarely make it past two years at any particular place of employment.  It is also in opposition to some of the “it” breweries that have had explosive growth, and is certainly interesting to think about juxtaposed with the recent stir caused by Trillium Brewing Company and the wages, and wage cuts, they have offered their staff (see vinepair.com for more).

Despite the facade of brewing being a glamorous job, it is manufacturing work that offers low pay (for more on that, check out Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog).  As a result, the opportunity to work at another brewery for just a few dollars more can certainly be an incentive to leave.   This is concerning for some brewery owners as the market is competitive.  They may feel possessive of recipes and techniques, and some require staff to sign a non-compete clause.  This results in low-paid brewers having to pay for a lawyer just to get and/or leave a job.

The title of this post is made in jest, but depending on the terms of a non-compete, a brewer could move to the other side of town, brew a completely different style of beer, and still be sued.  This was the case for Alan Sprints in 1993 when he was sued by Widmer Brothers Brewing after he had signed a non-compete, later leaving to start Hair of the Dog in Portland, Oregon.  In that case, Widmer backed off, but the company was dealt a huge blow by angered consumers who rightly saw the move as aggressive and out of line.   The incident was recently discussed on Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog site in light of a lawsuit filed by Toppling Goliath against a former brewer (that case has now been dismissed, with both parties reaching a confidential agreement (check out the Iowa Beer Blog for more).  It seems clear customers don’t like to see breweries taking these types of actions against employees, but in a Good Beer Hunting post at the time the story broke, Bryan Roth noted “it's probably only a matter of time before the kind of lawsuits that Toppling Goliath is pursuing become more common.”

What about talented brewers starting a venture that don’t have to worry about non-competes, but also don’t have the luxury of pointing to past experience at “it” breweries to get noticed? Is the reception of their product different? Do they get rated differently on sites like Untappd and Beeradvocate? They likely face more of a struggle, but perhaps the success of Suarez, Reason and others provide hope for those starting out, looking to make humble beer.

 

Kevin KainComment