Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway)
Clay Risen has the craft beer world all in a tizzy this week, though most beer geeks out there may not even be familiar with his name. With one New York Times article Risen, an author, Times editor and occasional contributor of some fine spirits articles to The Atlantic, reignited years-old arguments in the craft beer community with an article about his sudden and shocking discovery of 750mL bottles of craft beer, many of which sell at prices comparable to bottles of wine.
Beyond simply being late-to-the-party on the use of 750mL bottles by brewers, the article made legitimate craft beer-drinker concerns sound a bit like whining while seeming amused by the idea of beer being anything but a cheap, ‘common’ drink. The wake of the Times article saw concerns rise once again over the ‘wineification’ of beer, and debates over what the best format is for big beers and special releases.
It all started with a handful of tweets Tuesday morning: some of the beer fans and writers whom I follow on Twitter started shooting links to Risen’s Times piece with pithy comments about its tone. The conversation quickly turned to concerns over the rising costs of some beers (especially those in larger formats), and frustration over 750mL bottles being too big to enjoy without help.
Let’s tackle the second point first: as a commenter on The Drinks Business points out in their report on the Times article, there are hundreds if not thousands of Belgian beers that come in 750s, while another points out that it’s often easier and more cost-effective for breweries to bottle in 750s rather than in 12oz bottles for four- or six-packs. There have always been those calling for stronger beers to be packaged in smaller bottles, as 750mL bottles demand a crowd to share reasonable servings. However, even when rarities or bigger brews are sold in the 12oz format that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be tackled on one’s own. Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA and WorldWide Stout are sold as 12oz bottles, and both are strong enough to merit a group of three or four (though some of us have been known, on occasion, to take them on solo).
Slightly more concerning to me, not only as a specialty retailer but as a craft beer fan, is the umbrage being taken with more expensive beers, which increasingly make up most of the 750mL beer bottles on the market. Among us beer geeks the conversations run toward breweries we’ve seen come up from humble beginnings abandoning the diehards who supported them in their youth for an upscale, stratified market. These debates will sound familiar to music lovers who have heard laments over one band or the other ‘selling out’ — a concept whose relevance and veracity dull with age and experience, like teeth.
Beer writer and all-around good guy Jake Berg of local beer website DCBeer.com wished for craft breweries to take a route opposite what most have been doing lately by bottling their higher-ABV beers in smaller formats while saving the more everyday recipes for 750s. There is a long history of this exact thing being done and many do it today, but the trend of retail sales over the past few years has favored smaller daily drinkers: for example, I used to only carry the 750mL bottles of Saison Dupont, the classic Belgian Farmhouse Ale. These days, I stock the 12.7oz bottles as the trend went toward beer drinkers enjoying their drink, rather than the group sharing a drink.
For better or worse, a by-product of the explosive growth of craft beer in the U.S. has been the rise of the individual palate as a cornerstone of the market. This is at odds with the origins and history of beer as the beverage of the people; the image we all have in our heads of a group of friends sharing a pint or two at the end of our days; the ink with which much of our social contract is written. I get that. As a matter of fact, I love that. What we are going to have to learn to accept is that with so many choices in an ever-expanding market, not every beer is going to fit that standard.