CVIndependent

Sat12152018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It’s not easy to know exactly where your money is going when you buy something. Some large corporations take great care to intentionally obscure this knowledge, at least when looking at products superficially. You might despise a certain large conglomerate, and vow to boycott it … only to later find out that the paper towels you bought are made by a company that is wholly owned by that same conglomerate.

For decades in the craft-beer world, we didn’t have this problem: If you liked the beer you were drinking, you could find out who made it by looking at the label—and that was that. Well, the craft-beer market steadily grew … until the bigger boys in the industry could no longer stand by and watch its massive market share erode.

The plan was simple: Buy up craft breweries around the country.  

“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Not a single thing … at least not from a business and legal perspective. Lagunitas Brewing Company, the renowned brewer in Petaluma, sold half of the company to Heineken in 2015, and then sold the remaining half in 2017—yet the beer’s quality remains just as good as ever, and consumer costs have gone down. What could be wrong with that?

The short answer: Plenty. As for the longer answer, we’ll come back to this later, because now I have to try to make a relatively dry concept somewhat interesting: the three-tier system for alcohol in the U.S. At least it has an interesting origin, in the shadows of the Prohibition era and the Roaring ‘20s. In that decade, saloons popped up to serve the sinfully thirsty public, and many of them were “tied houses,” meaning an alcoholic-beverage supplier would pay a saloon to exclusively carry their products. Upon Prohibition’s merciful appeal, federal and state legislators saw the problem with this and sought to institute a system to protect the consumer from tied houses, encouraging free-market activity. Thus, the three-tier system was born: Breweries (or alcoholic-beverage makers more generally) would sell their products to consumers through a distributor that acts as a middle man.  

Benefits and drawbacks to this system have popped up in the ensuing years. One the biggest benefits is to smaller breweries: They have the possibility of getting their beer into other markets relatively easily, thanks to a distributor’s expanded network. This could allow a brewery to gain fans in places it previously might have never been known.

There is a dark side: AB InBev and Molson Coors have become the equivalent to The Empire in the Star Wars movies when it comes to craft beer. AB InBev is the massive multinational conglomerate and parent company to all of the Anheuser Busch and SABMiller beers, as well as many other brands. (Yes, that nasty yellow stuff is owned by foreign corporations. Don’t ever be fooled by the ridiculous beer commercials pasting American flags on everything.) Molson Coors is at least half-American, and I think you can guess which half. The company’s M.O. seems to be combining marketing and packaging efforts, as well as streamlining processes within the company. This allows them to produce the exact same product, no matter where you’ll find it in the world. It’s a feat of engineering, really, and something to be admired for what it is worth (and it’s worth billions for them), but what about the … uh ... taste?

Now we come to “branches”: Large breweries own distribution affiliates in select markets. While legal, it is plain to see the problem with this setup: These distribution affiliates can strong-arm local businesses into essentially becoming tied houses. “Oh, you’d like to carry (fill in the blank) brewery’s beers? They’re not in our portfolio, I’m afraid. And if you do carry them, we’ll pull all of (our popular but bland) brewery’s beers. If you want craft beer, though, you’re in luck! We have some in our portfolio. So what if we stomped on the quality of their beers in an attempt to make them more cheaply and more efficiently (with the exception of Lagunitas/Heineken … for now)?”

These conglomerates count on your ignorance of the origins of the beer you’re drinking. This isn’t anything to be ashamed of, by the way: Beer aisles are an absolute labyrinth, and nobody should be expected to stand around Googling who owns what. However … did you know that Los Angeles’ Golden Road Brewing is owned by AB InBev? Don’t be surprised; AB InBev owns at least 400 beer brands.

This mess inevitably spreads to the shelves. It’s why you might see packages of varying sizes and shapes of Budweiser, Bud Light, Coors, Miller Lite, etc. More shelf space equals more eyes on brands, which equals more sales. It has a distinct, anti-free-market whiff about it, doesn’t it? It’s also why these conglomerates spend ungodly sums of money on commercials that either dazzle you with visual stimuli, distract you with humor, or talk about all of its beer’s attributes without mentioning a single taste descriptor: “Hey, this beer is cold-filtered, crisp and golden? Those are my favorite flavors!”

At this point, a craft-beer fan needs to make up his or her mind. You don’t need my permission to spend your hard-earned dollars on any brand over another—but if you’d like to continue to see craft beer thrive, and become more interesting and exciting with each new beer released, join me in moving away from the products by the breweries that have sold out to Big Beer, and instead support the absolute glut of breweries that have not done so. The Brewers Association recently created the Independent Craft Brewers Seal, which qualified breweries can apply to their labels. (Note, however, that the seal is not yet being used industry-wide, so if a beer does not have the seal, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being produced by a brewery owned by one of the large conglomerates.)

Since we’re in Southern California, I’ll mention a couple of breweries that have sold out.

AB InBev owns Golden Road Brewing and 10 Barrel Brewing. The latter is out of Oregon, but opened a large restaurant and taproom in downtown San Diego—something that was a topic of great contention in a county with 150-plus breweries. If you’re in San Diego and find your way to 10 Barrel, you’ve really overlooked some amazing, independent brewers within a stone’s throw (no pun intended).

Constellation Brands owns San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing. This buyout was a big deal in the industry when it occurred in 2015 due to the $1 billion price tag. At least Constellation is an American company; it also owns Corona, Modelo, Pacifico and many other brands. However, there are so many true craft breweries within a very short distance of any Ballast Point location where you could have a good or better time.

Go forth; stay vigilant; and drink wisely!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

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

“There is good living, where there is good beer.”

Since I started writing about beer, this has been my mantra—and, of course, good food is part of good living, too.

There’s more synergy between the beer and food worlds than ever before. Brewers have produced a range of delicious beers to suit nearly every kind of food. The Brewers Association reports that the number of breweries in the U.S. just passed 5,000—a record high. That means there’s a ton of beer-and-food-pairing potential! Therefore, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs are increasingly recognizing the versatility of craft beers—and their various complex favors—when it comes to food pairing.

“Dr.” Bill Sysak is respected around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and flavor profiles. Dr. Bill, as he’s known in the craft-beer community, is the co-founder and CEO at Wild Barrel Brewing Company and the former craft beer ambassador at Stone Brewing Co. He suggests matching strength with strength: Strong-flavored foods demand assertive beers. And for crying out loud, taste things first!

“I’ve always been a proponent whenever possible of knowing the flavor profiles of both the beer and the food, personally, versus just reading about it,” says Dr. Bill.

Grains like wild rice or polenta pair well with clean and crisp Bohemian-style pilsners or American amber lagers. The complementary grain flavors balance hops while staying light on the palate.

Love sour and funky beers? Try them with rich meats and root vegetables. Combining these flavors brings out umami.

While filet mignon is classically paired with pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, a rich stout has the potential of bringing out flavors that one won’t taste with wine. Brown ales are also bold enough to complement roasted meat.

That said … breaking the rules is totally OK—and even encouraged! Discover what works together on your palate.

Wes Lieberher, the executive chef at Beer Belly in Los Angeles, is a rule-breaker, as well as a food and beer lover. You must try his beer-braised octopus. He’s putting his own twist on what’s popular; for example, he created a French dip with duck and duck au jus. When it comes to pairing, he tends to experiment with what’s available.

“I leave it open,” Lieberher says. “We switch our taps so much, so there’s always a different beer, so there could always be a slightly different flavor to it, which is kinda cool.”

As for breaking rules: He pairs his beer-battered fish and chips, a lighter dish, with a hoppier IPA, rather than the lighter pilsner used in the dish.

“A lot of people will say, ‘This goes with this,’” Lieberher says. “I won’t cook with an IPA, but IPAs will go great with something I’m using a lighter beer with.”

More and more, brewers, restaurateurs and chefs are using what’s available to them locally. This tends to lead to better natural pairings.

“I was one of the first major people at my level—beer-and-food pairers—to talk about regionality,” says Dr. Bill. “Back when water was bad for you, people had to have whatever (alcohol was available in the) area of the world they lived. … In the Grape Belt, they drank wine with their meals, or diluted wine for their children. In the Grain Belt, everybody drank beer or mead or cider.

“If you had to eat the same kind of food sources every day, and the only beverage you had to wash it down with made you say ‘yuck’ every time, those styles wouldn’t survive, right? You would find the styles that work well.”

Julia Herz wrote the book on beer pairing. No, really: She co-authored Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros with Gwen Conley. Herz is the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association and a certified cicerone.

“The localization movement isn’t just isolated to food,” she says. “That’s where we became aware of it—from the slow-food movement, farm to table—and now it’s farm to keg to tap! We’ve got brewers thinking like chefs.”

While beer has reclaimed its place at the dinner table in some places, many restaurants still put only wine in the spotlight. Herz believes it’s time that more of the 115,000 people in the U.S. craft-brewing community speak up with a simple request: “Dear restaurateurs: It’s time to have your menu present beer in the same manner as food and wine.”

Herz suggests trusting the waiter or beer-server if you’re at a restaurant that has a respectable-looking beer menu

“Go to establishments that hang their hat on pairings. Have them be your guide,” she says. “If they have wine pairings, it’s a good place to push them and ask them about beer pairings.”

But to repeat: The one definitive source for what beer works well with what food is your own palate. Experiment and embrace your inner anarchist.

“We all aren’t the same tasting type, and we’re not all going to perceive what we taste as the same,” Herz says. “So it’s all about the journey—experimenting and being able to articulate to yourself or to others what you did and didn’t like.”

Thankfully, people are taking her advice. As of March 2016, nearly half of craft-beer drinkers surveyed said they drink craft with food more now than they did a couple of years ago.

Make no mistake: Beer is king and should have a place at the dinner table. When combined, the sales of wine ($37.5 billion) and spirits ($69 billion estimated) in the United States barely surpass the sales of beer ($101.5 billion—$19.6 billion from small and independent U.S. craft brewers). This tells us there is unmistakable potential.

Cheers, and bon appétit!

Published in Beer

Spring is in full bloom—and so is beer-festival season!

Beer weeks and festivals celebrate the culture and community of craft beer and give fans options to enjoy new and special brews—and there are a lot of these special events coming up in places that are fairly close by.

The Brewers Association celebrates American Craft Beer Week May 11-17. You can enjoy this craft-beer celebration just about anywhere: Many craft-beer establishments are celebrating with rare beers, dinner menus or specials.

During ACBW, celebrate with Angelinos at the sixth annual Los Angeles Vegan Beer and Food Festival (www.veganbeerfest.com). It takes place Saturday, May 16, at Rose Bowl and will feature a vegan smorgasbord, the best of the region’s craft beer and live music. It’s put on by Tony Yanow and Nic Adler—the same guys who brought craft culinary selections to Coachella. Tickets cost $50 to $80 and include unlimited pours of more than 100 beers from 65 breweries, as well as access to food that can be purchased from 40 vendors.

The first Paws for Rhythm and Brews will be held Saturday, June 6, a little closer to home—at the Idyllwild Nature Center (www.arfbeerfest.com). Proceeds go to the Animal Rescue Friends of Idyllwild (ARF), a grassroots rescue group on the mountain; tickets are $25 in advance. Paws for Rhythm and Brews is also holding what’s believed to be the first homebrew competition in our neighboring mountain community; registration closes on May 24, and winners will be announced at the festival. Not only can you escape the desert heat for a weekend; you can help a great cause. ARF’s mission is to rescue animals that have been abandoned or lost, or whose owners are no longer able to care for them. Janice Murasko put together the fest with her husband, Robert Hewitt.

“All of our dogs are kept with foster families, so we don’t have a kennel. All of them go with different fosters until they’re adopted,” she said. “We do have a small cattery; we can have up to 10 cats at a time. … We survive on very small grants, donations and fundraisers. … We have a veterinarian who comes up once a month, because there are no vets on this mountain.”

So it’s a great cause, and a great time as well: There will be awesome barbecue, live blues, a stein-holding contest, and wine for those who don’t drink beer. There will even be free shuttles from town to the event!

A bit bigger and farther away: LA Beer Week is returning June 20-28. Festivities begin on Saturday, June 20, with the LA Brewers Beer Week Kickoff at a new location: Exposition Park’s south lawn. Tickets are $45 and selling fast. If you miss out on the kickoff event, there will be more than 200 events spread around various bars, restaurants, retailers and breweries during the week.

I recently spoke with acclaimed brewer Victor Novak, now with Golden Road Brewing, about LA Beer Week. The Los Angeles brewery recently announced plans to open a second location, in Anaheim.

“I love doing outside events,” he said about LA Beer Week. “… We have great sales people, but it’s not the same as having a brewer on site at a festival for someone to talk shop and give people more detail on how the beer is produced.

Golden Road will be brewing its seasonal IPA, Heal the Bay. Proceeds go to various environmental projects in Southern California. Novak will also be brewing a special brew for a Star Wars-themed “May the 4th Be With You” event: The Hudson Porter, an imperial porter with rye, will be transformed to Java the Hudson after Novak and his team add vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, and later coffee, to the brew. Novak is hoping they will have some available for L.A. Beer Week.

“To have the brewer presence there, I think, is huge,” he said. “(Events) are not only fun for us; it is nice to interact. We’re a great community. Now we see the other brewers, and get people’s feedback on what we’re doing right then—good and bad. If they have an issue, I’d rather they tell me, than read about it on Beer Advocate or something.”

Also: A bucket-list beer festival would have to be the Firestone Walker Invitational, held in Paso Robles on Saturday, May 30. Even brewers like Novak love it. Unfortunately, it’s already sold out, so mark your calendars for next year.

“If someone were able to get hold of one (ticket), that is the must-attend,” Novak said. “It’s so huge and so hard to get into, as a brewer and an attendee. It’s beautiful up there, and you can go wine-tasting. It’s classic California.”

If you’d rather head farther south, don’t miss Escondido’s Stone Sour Fest, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, June 28 (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1171599). A $49 ticket includes a commemorative glass, 15 3-ounce tasters and more than 100 amazing beers from which to choose. I’ll be there with a bus full of Coachella Valley locals. Pucker up!

In August (keep your eyes open for the exact date), keep a look out for the Blue Palms Brewhouse Seventh Anniversary in Hollywood (www.everfest.com/e/blue-palms-anniversary-los-angeles-ca). It’s one of the coolest beer parties in So Cal.

Lucky for us, there are plenty of events at which we can enjoy a variety of Southern California beers. Of course, every day is a good day for beer!

Published in Beer