Beer reviews, Cubs thoughts, and other fatherhood musings
Monday, August 15, 2016
Perspective...Beer and Arkansas
the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point.
"a perspective drawing"
a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.
"most guidebook history is written from the editor's perspective."
synonyms: outlook,viewpoint, POV, standpoint, position, stance,stand, frame of mind, frame of reference, approach. Example:
"her perspective on things had changed"
Perspective is a funny thing. It is so personal, that many times we are not able to think clearly and see things correctly. We need time and space to see things (as in definition 1), to ensure that our personal position, (definition 2), does not weigh to heavily on the facts. That is no easy task. Due to its personal nature, we have a hard time letting go of our biases. Silly Humans.
Lets go back. I could start 12 years ago when I moved here, but, truth be told, we don't have to go back that far. Lets start in 2010. There was only one in-state production brewery, there were less than 5 total. The shelves at the local bottle shops were in a sad state, covered mostly in macro beers from "The Big 3." Any out of state craft/import product was shoved to the side, on the floor, out of the cooler and gathering dust. If it even existed, as most liquor stores knew where their bread was buttered. Its Arkansas, stock the Jim, Jack, Crown and cases of adjunct lager as water backs for those and you're golden. Yum.
In 2010, Northwest Arkansas had a new brewery emerge. With a craft beer craze across the country spreading like wildfire, a River Valley native, living in NWA, tossed aside his corporate job for the brewing life. It started with contract brewing then his own brick and mortar, followed by bottles, cans and 73 (maybe a touch less) off site pubs. They've also expanded in Missouri, retracted from there, tried Mexico, and just recently moved in to Tennessee. They are, for better or worse, depending on your...perspective...in many ways the face of Arkansas craft beer. Or were.
That brewery, since opening and proving we had a craft thirsty demographic, opened the floodgates for many other local entrepreneurs to give their mash paddle a go. Northwest Arkansas as a collective has ballooned to more than 10 breweries plus a cidery and Little Rock is not far behind, with several other rural areas adding to the mix. Less than 5 to 20 plus in state in 6 years is quite the boom. The numbers bear out that the population is not only supporting them, but begging for more.
The state and the consumer have both benefited from the added selections. Economically it has provided jobs and consumers are, by and large supporting all of these ventures. It has also drawn interest from large, national craft brands, the biggest domino being Founders Brewing from Michigan just over two years ago. After getting distribution from them, other stalwarts such as Green Flash, Bells, Lagunitas, and Stone have joined the fray. This is, in my estimation, all a good thing. We have international, national, regional, and local breweries jockeying for position where once Blue Moon and Corona dominated the cooler. The shelves that once boasted Sam Adams and Shiner Bocks as sole craft representation have been replaced with a plethora of breweries that did not exist even a couple years ago; or if they did, acquiring them was not something that could be done in state.
Bottom line: We've grown.
Now here are the problems with that growth.
Quality has slipped. Really slipped. Of course the big craft companies have QA and QC standards that are beyond what the local guys can touch, so usually, they're okay on things such as infections, half fills, exploding bottles, et al.
Goose Island, former craft brewery, now masquerading as an independent wing of the Evil Empire, has had to recall more than half of last year's Bourbon County Stout due to infections. That they blamed on Chinese bottles. Uh huh. I think the answer is probably more close to home. When you are purchased by an large corporation, who has investors, who presumably want returns, you cut corners. You get sloppy. You use cheaper ingredients. You move production out of original state to be made in a Budweiser facility. Of course things will change. Things ALWAYS change.
The shelves have also gathered a number of regional craft breweries who are newer, looking to expand out of their home state and find a burgeoning craft market without too many competitors. While some of these have come in and been a hit and a welcome surprise, far too often I see no turnover and poor ratings. A 40 aggregate rated IPA just isn't going to sell. So it sits. Then it gets moved to the pick 6 shelf. Next thing you know, that 40 rated IPA is a year old, getting rated even worse. Its an uphill battle without the big money to do an all out assault into a new state. Without that major push, brands come here with no recognition or fanfare, get tried by a handful of us adventurous types, and then forgotten. It is a cutthroat business and a harsh reality.
Still others, mainly local, with far less funding, have major quality control issues due to various reasons, both verified and assumed.
Several in state breweries...well, most in state production breweries have had exploding cans on shelves or in refrigerators. The blame has gone towards can lining, bad yeast, unintentional shipment, "distributor error," and on and on. Obviously there is a learning curve, and with growth and expansion new challenges arise. I will say, that more than one of the breweries I've personally had exploding cans from, has made right. With replacement beer, sincere apologies and even follow up letters with reasons. I know one even pulled a whole batch of beer back. That is admirable and shows a dedication to customers and craft.
Issues arise with others however who never take responsibility and instead, rely on tired excuses that most true craft customers have grown weary of. Half full bottles, infected bottles with pellicle showing, explosions in store; there is a bigger issue here. Many customers firmly couched in the industry have simply moved on.
The issue for me is the fact that too many consumers think that it is okay. With the explosion of this industry we love, we have gathered market share like a downhill snowball. We've brought in folks from all walks and most are committed to never going macro again. However, there are so many out there still learning, and if they start to think that average beer is good beer, just because of its price point, it says its local, or craft, or small batch, or whatever--we'll have a problem. We'll have a large group of craft beer that isn't craft at all. It will just be smaller batches of mediocre beer. Mind you, I don't mean mediocre in the sense of whatever style you like, I am simply for these purposes referring to the basic quality of the beer. Lack of attenuation, infection, under filled or out of date product. These issues need to be solved first and then we can get into a bad recipe/good recipe/bad execution discussion. That is a whole 'nother issue.
We as consumers, spending our hard earned money on traveling, trading, brewery visits, or even just buying at your local store deserve better. We deserve products we can be proud of, that we can share and brag about. We deserve better than corner cutting and poor packaging standards. In states with thriving craft beer communities, brewers and breweries are held accountable, and the good ones learn and grow from it. We need to, as a community, start to hold the breweries accountable for the beer we buy. Even when we are biased towards some breweries, for whatever reason, we know that there are better local breweries out there. If you love one, help them get better. Hold the distributors accountable for the beer they bring into state and stock; old and not selling needs to be dropped to make room for newer things. We've gone from 48th to 38th in just a couple years of breweries per capita (peruse that link while there, lots of good info).That is a good thing. We've come quite a ways in a short time. Now we need to take the next step and have great beer coming from those breweries, not just average quality. I believe the potential is there from most. Is the drive? Is the willingness to adapt and push the envelope moving forward? I hope so. Accidents happen. We all understand that. Its how you move on from those accidents that determines staying power. I would love for all the breweries we have to continue to thrive; to be challenged by each other and by new breweries, both local and otherwise, coming to market. A rising tide raises all ships, and there is plenty of room out there for growth (Vermont has 44 breweries and 1/5 our size. Highest per capita in US). If we shift our perspective slightly and focus on quality as 1a and growth as 1b, we all win. Lets just make sure it is growth in the right direction...not just for the sake of growth. Cheers, Chris