CVIndependent

Thu08222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

During Coachella, I tasted a lot of delicious craft beer, both in the Craft Beer Barn and at the Rare Beer Bar, the latter headed by Jimmy Han, owner of Los Angeles’ Beer Belly. One of my favorite discoveries: Wicked Weed Marina, a blonde sour ale that is aged in wine barrels—with more than one pound per gallon of peaches and apricots.

Just days later came the announcement that Anheuser-Busch InBev had bought the Asheville, N.C.-based Wicked Weed. It became the latest of 20-plus former craft breweries that are now owned by corporate brewers. I say “former,” because the Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as small, independent and traditional—with less than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft brewer.

What does this all mean? I spoke to Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program director, and Mitch Steele, the former brewmaster of Stone Brewing who is now the founder, brewmaster and COO of New Realm Brewing, coming soon to Atlanta.

There are a lot of feelings on both sides as far as craft breweries “selling out.” What are your thoughts?

JH: … It’s not happening in mass, right? Ninety nine percent of the 5,300-plus breweries are still independent and small. But as the purchases continue to happen … the Department of Justice issued a consent degree over (AB InBev’s) purchases in 2015 and 2016—Devil’s Backbone being a key one, which was approved, with some changes made, by the DOJ. … The more that the large, global brewers become a one-stop shop for brands and beer styles, the harder it is to make the marketplace fair, and for beer lovers to really get the choices that many beer-lovers desire.

MS: I think it’s really dangerous what’s going on right now, honestly. The problem is that the majority of the beer-drinking public doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the business practices of large brewers, and how it impacts small brewers. … When a brewery is buying tap space, which is technically illegal, small breweries can’t. Most small breweries won’t do it because they don’t want to do something that’s against the law, and they can’t afford to play that game, either. … When somebody who’s kind of a casual craft-beer fan walks into a bar, and sees all these beers that are “craft,” yet they’re all brewed at Anheuser-Busch, most of the time, (customers are) not going to register it’s not a small, independent brewer. When these brewers can potentially come in and sell a keg of beer for 50 to 60 percent of what a small craft brewer can, it really is damaging the ability of the craft brewers to sell their beer.

Were you surprised by the Wicked Weed buyout?

JH: … (In some respects), I am not surprised, because they (AB InBev) continue to make regional purchases in key beer markets of the country: Four Peaks in Arizona, Blue Point in New York, Los Angeles for Golden Road. These are very geographically, strategically made procurements. … Also, (as of now, the Wicked Weed) deal has not gone through. It’s an announcement from AB InBev that they are moving to make a partnership and bringing Wicked Weed into their brand portfolio. It’s still subject to review.

MS: Well, that surprised me. I’d go so far as to say that it shocked me. I thought they were in it for the long haul. I know (co-owners) Luke and Walt (Dickinson) pretty well, and I’ve brewed with them before, and we’ve hung out a lot. … I know Luke and Walt are part owners, but I don’t know what percentage they own. I know they had some big-time investors in that brewery, and it could have been mostly their decision, but who knows? But, yeah, it shocked me and disappointed me. Some of these are not a big surprise: You hear through the grapevine that some of these newer breweries are building themselves to sell … and they’re just trying to get their business to a point to where they’re attractive to a large brewer. … You know, when somebody comes and offers you a ridiculous amount of money, who’s to say you’re wrong for taking that and setting up your family for generations? You can’t really fault it. I just wish it didn’t happen.

Do you sympathize with any of these craft breweries after they explain themselves on social media? They say: “We had to do this because of distribution. The beer will stay the same.”

MS: Yeah. I worked with Budweiser for 14 years. This was back in the 1990s. People looked at Budweiser as the evil empire, but I dealt with the reaction from craft brewers all the time: “It’s lousy beer.” I’d get on my soap box and say, “Ya know, you may not like it, but don’t ever talk negative about the quality, because the people who brew this beer are as passionate about it as you are about yours.” But it’s a different company now. I certainly understand the backlash. I can relate to it because I dealt with it for a long time myself. … I think it’s a very uncomfortable feeling for most of them, because the craft-brewing business is so built on community and comradery. Now, all of sudden, you’re not in the club anymore. That’s a hard thing to swallow, especially when you’ve got so many friends in the business. … People who don’t have ownership in the brewery, and have no say in it—they’re just kind of there when it happens. Those are the people who I feel really bad for, because they had no say.

Do distribution laws and better access have anything to do with why they are selling?

MS: The whole access-to-ingredients thing, I think, is a little bit overplayed. If you’re a growing craft brewer, there are enough suppliers out there. If you work it hard enough, you can get what you need, with a few exceptions. For example, Galaxy hops—nobody can get Galaxy hops right now. Can a big brewer go in and get Galaxy hops? I don’t know if they can. … I think really the big advantage for a small brewer joining forces with a big brewer is the access to the technical resources, so they can understand what’s happening in the brewing process—be it really complex lab equipment or whatever. And then distribution access is huge. … Those are the things that really matter.

JH: Yes. As soon as you sell, you get instant access to things that those 99 percent of the 5,300 breweries don’t have. You get into a system in the network for better economies of scale, for purchasing raw materials and ingredients. You get instant distribution that cannot be matched. … The number of distributors over time continues to wane. Even though we have 5,300-plus breweries today, there are only 1,000-plus active distributors, and 500-plus of those are controlled by AB InBev. MillerCoors has several hundred as well. Distributors are amazing partners to beer, but it’s a matter of priority. How do they decide what they’re going to sell? When you’re an AB house … their first priority is likely those AB brands.

Published in Beer

Like IPAs? You aren’t alone.

According to the Brewers Association, IPAs accounted for less than 8 percent of the craft beers sold in 2008. As of August 2015, 27.4 percent of beers sold were IPAs.

That’s a huge amount growth—and the popularity of IPAs continues to rise: According to the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference, by the end of 2017, the IPA category is projected to have grown to one-third of the nation’s total volume of craft beer.

The bitter brew has grown to new, different and stronger heights. To dive deeper into the popular style, I spoke with three amazing Southern California craft brewers.

First: Mitch Steele, until his departure on June 30, was the head brewmaster at Stone Brewing, and is the author of IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. IPAs account for more than 50 percent of Stone Brewing’s sales!

What are some of your favorite hops to brew with and why?

That’s a loaded question. For the past several years, I’ve really liked Citra. I think it’s a wonderful hop. We have done a lot of work with Australian and New Zealand hops, (like) Galaxy. … (Stone is) doing a collaboration brew with Heretic and Beachwood, and we’re using a new hop called Idaho 7, which I think has a lot of potential; it’s a new American variety. It’s got a lot of really nice citrus and piney character to it. … Centennial has have been one of my favorites. We’re doing a pilsner using Sterling in it, which I think is … absolutely a wonderful hop.

Do you think the overall growth in the industry and better drinkers’ palates have affected the popularity of IPAs?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s all anybody drinks, by in large. … I think people have gotten used to the taste of hops in their beer, and they enjoy it. It’s an acquired taste; I don’t think it’s any different than coffee. Most people don’t like them the first time they try them. At this point, craft is becoming—I don’t want to say mainstream, but a lot more popular than what it had been, and I think people are embracing the hop character and looking at. … We’re always looking for new flavors to get out of hops, and I think that’s a big part of it.

What are some of the latest trends you’re seeing in IPAs?

Two things right now really stand out. No. 1 is the fruit IPA thing—the IPAs with added fruit, which only makes sense, because a lot of these new hop varieties that are out there produce flavors that are reminiscent of peach, pineapple and grapefruit and all that. So to actually augment the hop flavor with a fruit—it’s not new, but it’s really has taken off within the past year. … The other one would be the whole New England IPA—unfiltered IPA, really opaque versions of IPA. They’ve really gone to another level. There’s a lot of debate among brewers as to whether it’s a good thing or not. Most brewers are trained that you’ve got to have a clear beer when you serve it in the glass. This kind of flies in the face of that. You can’t deny the popularity of the beer.

What do you like about single-hop beers and that trend?

We do a lot of single-hop beers in small batches. … It’s a great way to really understand how a particular hop works in a beer, because so many beers are brewed with blends of hops. If you really want to get a feeling for what the hop is really all about, you’ve got to brew a single hop and do something fairly intensely hopped.

Do you have an overall philosophy in brewing IPAs? Has it changed or morphed over the years?

Yeah, I think it has evolved since Stone. I think a couple things have changed. I think the amount of hops used in a dry hop has gone up across the board with all brewers. It used to be that if you were using three-quarters of a pound of hops per barrel, you were dry hopping pretty aggressively. Now there are a lot of brewers who are using two pounds per barrel on a regular basis. That’s kind of something that I’ve embraced. …  By using four or five different varieties of hops, as flavored hops, if you do run into a crop issue with one of them, or the beer sells a heck of a lot more than you anticipated, and you can’t get one of the varieties, it’s a little easier to make a substitution than if it’s a single-hop IPA or one or two hops in the IPA. … (For me), the past four years have been about discovering new hop varieties and putting them in our beers. That’s been our main focus. In the past, it was, ‘OK what hops can I get?’ And I’ll build our beers around that. And now, it’s like, ‘OK, I want to build a beer around this hop.’”

What do you love about IPAs?

I like being challenged with the flavor. When you get an IPA that just captures that really brilliant intense hop flavor and hop aroma, it’s liquid gold to me. I love hoppy beers. They don’t have to be IPAs, but I love IPAs, because I know I’m always going to get a pretty intense hop character, and that’s going to teach me something.

What would you tell homebrewers out there who are interested in brewing IPAs?

Minimize crystal malt usage in the recipe. Sweet IPAs aren’t as drinkable as dry IPAs—and then the other thing is when the beer ages, the crystal malt corrodes, and the flavor totally masks the hop character. I would say it’s OK to use hops that aren’t traditionally used in IPAs, and have some fun with that; that’s how we discovered Sterling. It’s considered a noble type hop, and we threw it in an IPA and it’s just absolutely incredible. … You’re going to learn something either way, whether it turns out great or not.


Ben Cook is the president and master brewer at Hangar 24 in Redlands. While Hangar 24’s ever-popular and refreshing Orange Wheat makes up 55 percent of the company’s beer sales, Hangar’s Betty IPA makes up much of the rest. After a popular first release, the Double Betty was recently re-released.

“People appear to not be getting enough IPAs,” he said. “The Betty, since inception, has seen double- and triple-digit growth. … Often, it’s fun for brewers to see what we can do and push the limits on the alcohol and hop character we can fit into a beer, while making it still a really tasty beer—and not just, you know, a mess.”

Do you think the overall growth in the industry and better drinkers’ palates have affected the popularity of IPAs?

Yeah, absolutely, I mean, we were even resistant to it a little bit. We brewed so many different styles of beer. I think last year, when we were really focusing on top-line growth, we brewed more than 50 different styles of beer, using local ingredients … and then you go brew just a standard IPA, and it flies off the shelf. So, IPAs for sure are where the consumers are still at. … People have evolved to want more—more flavor, more bitterness, more hop profile, and so they moved onto IPAs, and haven’t quite started venturing out a lot more yet. People are getting into sours and other categories, but right now, the numbers pop: IPAs and IPA variants dominate.

What do you like about single-hop beers and that trend?

We used to do one. Our regular flagship IPA was called Columbus IPA. I like them, because … you can see what brewers are doing, so from a technical standpoint, I think they’re a lot of fun. I think they’re great to taste; it’s great for the brewers to drink them and know what that hop tastes like when it’s only in that beer. … Sometimes, it’s challenging to get those beers to have the same complexity and depth as beers that have multiple hop varietals in them. But you also have some amazing single hop beers; it’s just harder. It does make it a little more special.

Besides your own beer, what are your go-to IPAs right now?

I don’t think about beer like I used to. That would have been a really good question to ask toward the beginning of my beer career. But now, it’s not really a thought that enters my head, because it just depends on where I’m at. I’m never at a bar and ask, ‘Do they have this?’ It’s more of a, ‘What’s on tap?’ Then I look at what’s available, and if I’m drinking an IPA, I’ll look at the IPA list. If there’s anything I’ve never heard of … I’ll do a quick little search online and make sure I’m not diving into something I shouldn’t be diving into. My favorite beer is the one in my hand. That’s the joy of craft beer—there are all these varieties.

What are your thoughts on experimental hops and new or trendy hops like Citra and Mosaic? Do you have a process on choosing what hops to use with which beers?

I think that it’s fun, and it allows us to be innovative. I know brewers love it; the consumers love it. Experimental hops are a win for everyone. I hope the growers keep going down that path, and it appears they are. The more hops we have, the more we can differentiate ourselves and offer the consumer the variety they’re looking for.

What would you tell homebrewers out there who are interested in brewing IPAs?

Experiment. I think that’s what it’s all about. Do weird stuff that no one has ever done. Have fun experimenting, don’t stay within the standard practice and the standard amounts. Have fun with it.


Kyle Smith, the master of brewing for Kern River Brewing, focuses on IPAs. The category makes up 75 to 80 percent of the company’s craft-beer sales. Last year, the brewery produced close to 2,000 barrels. This year, it’s on pace to brew between 6,000 and 7,000 barrels.

What are some of the latest trends you’re seeing in IPAs

I’m seeing really aggressively hopped beers. It’s hard to find some of the balanced IPAs anymore. Don’t get me wrong; there are some really, really good ones out there, obviously. … (Drinkers) don’t want a bad IPA, where 10 years ago, we may not have known the difference. It’s kind of hard to find a bad IPA any more. Everybody’s palate is diverse now and can figure out, ‘Hey, this doesn’t work,’ or, ‘Wow, this really works,’ which is awesome.

Besides your own beer, what are your go-to IPAs right now?

There are so many good ones out there now. Anything from Russian River—you can’t go wrong. Where we’re at, since we’re so rural, I never see Russian River up here, so if I can pop a Blind Pig, I’m pretty stoked. I just had the new collaboration … from Noble (and) Cellarmaker, Dank You for Being a Friend. That was an awesome IPA. Societe Brewing—anything from those guys. A good stand-by is Sierra Nevada Torpedo; you can’t go wrong with that beer.

Do you have an overall philosophy in brewing IPAs? Has it changed or morphed over the years?

My philosophy is always, when it comes to actual brewing, I like to go heavy on the later additions, which gives you more of a floral aroma. Also, I try to stay away from the caramel malts. I’ll use a little bit, but be real sparing, because after a while, the caramel malts will stand out more than the hops. … If it’s a single IPA, I really enjoy keeping it mid-range alcohol content, somewhere between 6 and 6.5 percent. I feel like it’s a little bit more drinkable.

What do you love about IPAs?

I love the amazing aroma that comes off from the floral hops that we use, and then also a little bit of a bitterness and the balance of the malt. That’s what we kind of strive for in our IPAs. It’s more of a balance-forward IPA, not just strictly hop-forward—there’s just a little bit of a malt balance also.

What are your thoughts on experimental hops and new or trendy hops like Citra and Mosaic? Do you have a process on choosing what hops to use with which beers?

We use a lot of those hops. We use a lot of Mosaic in our session IPAs. … We do a series of experimental IPAs called Think Tank. We rotate a different hop just to see what kind of profile it has. I enjoy a lot of those hops. Citra has been around for a while. Some of the newer experimental hops … we’ve used a few. They seem to be a little muddled; they seem to be a cross between all these different flavors. … With Kern’s Think Tank series, we are able to experiment at the pub … and get feedback from the locals.

Published in Beer