Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).
The best teacher I ever had growing up was my high school art teacher, Jeff Meizlik. As a young man with an interest in art, music, Jeff’s skill as a sculptor and painter along with his interest in nearly every subject made him feel like a kindred spirit; someone I could look up to and relate to at the same time.
My school had an annual Art Day, where the students from the various art classes (visual arts, ceramics, photography, etc.) would display their work, making a sort of pop-up art gallery for the day. For my freshman year Art Day display, I’d asked Jeff if I could hang something I’d been working on at home. It was a simple pencil drawing, but something I’d put a decent amount of working into and that I thought I’d done a good job with.
When he said no, I argued my case for the piece that I liked so much before he dropped the best piece of advice I could have gotten on me, not to mention “words for life” that I refer to even now: “Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good.”
I thought about Jeff’s words when I read about Brewer’s Association Director Paul Gatza’s address at last week’s Craft Brewer’s Conference in Denver. You can read a more in-depth account of Gatza’s speech and some of the associated conversation here, but the big point of his address was that with craft beer growing at such an amazing rate, there are more and more homebrewers “going pro.” He talked about a beer festival he’d attended and the beers he’d tried from new breweries, many of which had only been founded over the past couple of years. Where these brewers (and their fans) thought their beers were great, Gatza found them lacking in quality.
“(W)e need to improve it,” Gatza said of the overall level of beer being produced by these new breweries. He noted that with the growth of the industry over the past few years, opportunities abound for those who want to get into the craft beer business, offering a simple plea to those who are planning to do so: “Don’t f–k it up.”
Gatza explained the dangers of new breweries putting out sub-par beer: “With so many brewery openings, the potential is there for things to start to degrade on the quality side, and we wouldn’t want that to color the willingness of the beer drinker to try new brands. If a beer drinker has a bad experience, they are just going to go back to companies they know and trust.”
Solutions include regular lab testing to catch potential chemical flaws that can make even the best recipes feel “off,” and willingness on the part of brewers to receive and process constructive criticism. The good news is that I’ve never met a brewer who isn’t open to getting “notes.” Also the craft brewing community is a tightly knit one; John Harris of the recently opened Ecliptic Brewing in Portland said it best to the Denver Post: “If you are having problems with beer, ask others for help…(d)on’t be too proud. We can help each other make our beer better.”
Beyond his reasonable perspective, what’s notable about Harris specifically is his previous experience as a brewer at craft beer stalwarts Deschutes and Full Sail. With money to be made in a successful craft brewery, there’s a flood of brewers going into business for themselves without having logged time within the “farm system” of established breweries/brewpubs, where nearly all of today’s brewing “stars” learned how to make beer, but more importantly honed their craft to a professional level.
More and more, brewers are going to be put in a position to develop, create, and market their singular visions without the years of work others before them put in before considering themselves ready. To them I say this: lab test as often as possible, take criticism of your beer at face value, and remember that just because you like it doesn’t mean that it’s good.
One more thing before I sign off this week: I just read a great profile of Texas’ Jester King Brewery by Michael Kiser at Good Beer Hunting. The full article is worth reading (and if you can get a hold of any Jester King stuff, check them out — they’re very good), but it was the opening paragraphs that stuck with me, as they touched on something I’ve been thinking about lately: with “craft beer” becoming so big, at some point do we ditch the “craft” part of that label? And if not, then what do we call breweries like Jester King, The Bruery, Alvinne, or LoverBeer, who produces small batches and focus on pushing stylistic boundaries and limits?
Kiser nails it, I think, with “artisanal.” To quote: “(C)raft beer is quickly becoming the new default — somewhat disregarding the craft of beer-making in any meaningful sense of the word… with all the growth in the craft sector, a new niche has emerged that has little chance of ever becoming industrialized, or defined by objective metrics. And that’s artisanal brewers.”
Brian Strumke at Stillwater Artisanal Ales and St. Louis’ Perennial Artisanal Ales already have the jump on using the term, but I think it properly describes what these breweries are trying to accomplish, without diminishing the commitment to quality and craft that larger breweries strive for and often achieve. So cheers to the craft breweries and cheers to the artisans, all of whom continue to provide us beer geeks with new and wonderful brews to enjoy and completely overthink.
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