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 Timesarticle 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.
More troubling is the idea that brewers have somehow overstepped their bounds by aiming higher in creativity, quality, and yes even in price. The articles I mentioned earlier are titled “Craft Beer ‘Becoming Like Wine’” and “Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause A Stir” — sounds like someone’s being accused of puttin’ on airs, no? The criticism comes sharp and fast from all angles on this issue: beer fans jump on what they see as ‘wine snob’-type pretension and elitism, while wine and spirits writers all but ask the best brewers in the world who they think they are for having the gall to present their creations as being worthy of examination or appreciation. As someone who is both a beer geek and a wine snob (in the best possible meaning of the term, of course) allow me to sum this up as well as I can:
The full breadth of what ‘wine’ is is no more the highest-selling lot at Christie’s than a Honus Wagner is the entirety of what it means to collect baseball cards. Good wine is not often cheap; most of the time however, it is relatively inexpensive. The vast majority of the wines we carry at Arrowine are from smaller producers, each of whom combines the elements of a specialized family farm along with the winery itself and in many cases the bottling line as well. All of these are things that are not easy to do well, and those difficulties come before we even consider the challenges of finding the harmony of grape varietals, soils, and climate that make up the essence of any great wine, regardless of its price.
In the same vein many of today’s modern craft breweries are small businesses, balancing the aesthetics of craft brewing with the industrial challenges of brewing to scale, bottling and shipping. While handling all of those tasks successfully, craft brewers make the most of their chosen medium, occasionally pushing boundaries but always striving for something better; whether it’s the creation of an entirely new style or the honing of a classic type of beer we all know and love. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of these men and women over the years. They are proud people of talent and vision and they tend to fail (when they do) as spectacularly as they succeed, but the best find a way to keep going. If any of you can look any of them in the eye and tell them their wares don’t merit the same regard as any winemaker or distiller… well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to pick our words carefully and make sure we mean exactly what we say.
Us beer geeks aren’t really worried that craft beer is getting too expensive — I’d still have six-packs of HopSlam at work if that were the case. Likewise, the high-and-mighty of the wine and spirits world aren’t really worried that beer is going to force its way onto their favorite Michelin-starred restaurant’s menu. What we’re all really worried about, ironically enough, is having to meet each other somewhere along the way. The wine people are worried that the unkempt, working-class rabble they see as the average beer buyer is going to have a seat at ‘their’ table. Likewise, we beer geeks are afraid that our heroes are going to be seduced by the trappings and finery of the aristocratic class, and tailor their products to suit those palates alone.
If Dogfish Head only bottled 120, WorldWide, and their pricier 750mL offerings, I’d go right along with many of the complaints I hear from friends of mine. But on any day of the week, increasingly in just about any store you can stop in, there’s plenty of 60 Minute IPA, 90 Minute IPA, India Brown Ale, Raison d’Etre, and Shelter Pale Ale to be had. I’m not trying to say there isn’t a line — I just turned down a special 12-pack release from a popular craft brewery this week because I thought it was needlessly expensive. I’m also not saying there aren’t brewers out there who are blatantly pushing an up-market trend in craft beer. What I am saying is that much like pornography, we may not be able to define craft beer snobbery in exact terms, but we know it when we see it.
What’s so funny about all of this discussion happening right now is that while I don’t see a ‘bubble’ in craft beer, I do see one for the super rare, ultra-expensive offerings that many scour the internet in hopes of finding either in trade or for sale at exorbitant prices. This backlash comes from too many becoming too frustrated from failed attempts to acquire rare brews they increasingly can’t afford, and has arrived hand-in-hand with the rise of a wider craft beer audience voicing its preference for more drinkable, approachable Ales and Lagers. As I write this I’m trying Victory Brewing Company’s new Swing Session Saison, and it’s brilliant. Swing is exactly the kind of beer I’m looking for right now; bright, clean, refreshing and even at 4.5% ABV full of flavor and character. By this summer Arrowine’s beer stacks are going to be full with world-class Pale Ales, IPAs, Lagers, Pilsners, and more all ranging from 4%-6% ABV.
While the niche market will never go away, the fact that it’s only now receiving mainstream attention doesn’t change the reality of what I’m seeing on the ground. I’m seeing folks taking home beers they can share with their friends; stuff they can fill a cooler with for that early spring barbecue they’ve got planned; a big bottle or two to split with their best friend, co-worker, or significant other that night or that weekend. If you watch too much cable news, you get the impression that the whole country is divided; incapable of basic human relation, much less compromise or understanding — but we all know better. What is happening in our business is no different: we’re all finding each other again, and these days we get to drink better while doing so.
Let’s save the vitriol for those who earn it on an individual basis. Until next time.
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