Shelf Life: A Look Back at the Last Eight Years of the Brewing Industry

Feature by | May 2015 | Issue #100

Matt Eshelman in his lab at Night Shift Brewing.| Photo by Alex Navarro

For an industry that didn’t really hit its stride until the early part of the last decade, eight years is a long time. In 2007, when BeerAdvocate became the country’s first monthly beer magazine, the combined output of 1,406 craft breweries represented less than four percent of the total market in the US. More than half of the breweries that fans now enjoy visiting, rating and talking about didn’t exist yet. With issue #100, we tasked a few of our favorite writers to tackle some of the bigger issues in recent years and reflect on where we’ve been and where we are now.

Advances in Yeast Science
by Aleszu Bajak

About the same time Sigmund Freud was leading patients to his couch in Vienna, Austria, a bearded Danish scientist named Emil Hansen was toiling away in the recently founded Carlsberg laboratory in Copenhagen. He was helping the Danish brewery with a problem everyone called a disease.

Nineteenth century beer couldn’t travel far without going bad. New methods of transporting beer farther and faster were worthless if the beer was going to arrive spoiled. And Carlsberg couldn’t grow without fixing the problem. Hansen had his work cut out for him.

A meticulous and thorough man, Hansen began to systematically classify the bugs Carlsberg was using to make beer. He noted their shapes and sizes. He described how they behaved during fermentation and what effects they had on beers. Eventually, from a single yeast cell, he grew a lager yeast strain that could be used to brew dozens of batches of beer consistently.

The Carlsberg yeast was unprecedented. It was a gift to brewers, who could finally start building new recipes and producing consistent styles. It revolutionized lager brewing and soon every major brewery was either using Carlsberg’s strain or isolating and selling their own. These lager yeasts have been used by breweries around the world ever since.

Which isn’t to say we haven’t come a long way since the 1880s. Today, we have hundreds of yeast strains on the market. From this menagerie, brewers can pick any style, any region, even a specific beer and buy an isolated, ostensibly pure strain.

The science has come a long way, too. With modern genetic sequencing, we can classify strains with molecular accuracy. We’ve teased out the complex evolutionary web of where yeasts came from and what genes are responsible for valuable traits like attenuation and alcohol tolerance. We’ve also figured out that yeasts we thought were lager were actually cold-fermenting ale yeasts. But if it ferments like a lager and tastes like a lager, many brewers don’t care what you call it.

Which might be why beer spoilage remains such a persistent problem. In the century since Hansen’s discoveries, we haven’t been able to avoid infections. Any experienced brewer knows how traumatizing—and costly—it can be. The good news is with a few techniques and a little upfront investment, breweries can embrace yeast science and stave off future infections.

At Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Mass., Matt Eshelman, a Tufts University chemist now working full time for the brewery, is the type of employee that beer businesses are turning to for help. “The first thing we bought was a microscope,” says Eshelman.

In his experience, basic lab procedures, like wearing gloves, drastically reduce the risk of contaminating experiments and equipment. “Sterile technique can go a long way,” he says. Eshelman follows this practice when streaking agar plates, testing rinse water, and pulling yeast samples during cone to cone pitching.

To collect significant and reliable data, he must control for certain variables, too. When testing a barrel-aged beer, for example, Eshelman takes samples from several depths in the barrel. If possible, he’ll mix the barrel in a bright tank before testing. Because, in the end, the scientific method is all about control. Or, as Hansen put it: “First, we must dream, giving free reign to our fancy, and then we must discover by exact experiments if our dreams agree with reality.”

Weekend beer drinkers at Belmont Station in Portland, Ore. | Photo by Taylor Seidler

Weekend beer drinkers at Belmont Station in Portland, Ore.

Shifting Demographics
by Heather Vandenengel

Illustrated by Peter de Sève and entitled “Hip Hops,” the cover of The New Yorker’s 2014 food issue depicts a young, tattooed man and woman seated at a beer hall-style table in a Brooklyn-esque bar. The man is quaffing a glass of a golden ale, while a server dressed in flannel stands by, proffering a bottle of beer like a fine wine. A diverse crowd of twentysomething drinkers make up the rest of the bar patrons and a framed photo of beer hangs on the exposed brick wall in the background.

The people here bear similarities to another recent mainstream portrayal of young beer drinkers: Budweiser’s infamous “Brewed the Hard Way” Super Bowl commercial, which mocked their penchant for fussing over craft ales and lagers. In one scene, a man with thick-rimmed glasses is mustache-deep in a dark, foamy beer; in another, three young guys, in flannel and heavy sweaters, eagerly trade tasting glasses. The chalkboard menu behind them lists fried Brussels sprouts, steak tartar [sic] and a meat and cheese board.

Both takes are clear in their characterizations: craft beer lovers are young, nerdy hipsters. They stick their noses into fancy glassware, pair pumpkin peach ale with charcuterie and do so with their equally hip, young friends in chic yet rustic new bars. Both are also exaggerations, of course, but they do a fair job of summing up the demographic and cultural shifts among beer drinkers over the last decade—trending toward a more diverse, younger, food-centric consumer base.

In 2001, a survey commissioned by the Brewers Association and conducted by the University of Maryland found that the median craft beer consumer was a well-educated, 39-year-old white male geographically concentrated in the Northeast or the West Coast who had a relatively high income.

Craft beer’s chunk of the market’s volume share has grown to double-digits in the years since, and now stands at 11 percent. Swept up by the local food movement, it has attracted millennials who flock to neighborhood beer bars after work and pick up growlers from local breweries on weekends. Within that segment, there are also more young female drinkers than ever before; according to a report from Brewers Association staff economist Bart Watson, women ages 21–34 now make up 15 percent of craft beer drinkers.

According to Watson, craft beer has also become more geographically diverse, as about 75 percent of 21-plus adults live within 10 miles of a brewery. “As the locations of breweries have diversified, the types of people who interact with those breweries, the type of people who drink their beer, has diversified as well,” he says.

That also means breweries can market directly to their communities. “The advantage that [craft] brewers have, and one reason we’ve seen this broadening demographic trend, is that they’re local, so they can target their products, they can target their marketing, can target their outreach to the demographic in the place where they live,” says Watson.

Even as the craft beer segment expands into the mainstream, its community roots are growing deeper, and the consumer is becoming more reflective of that reach. Stereotypes still exist, but it just takes one look around a beer festival, brewery taproom or hip Brooklyn bar to see the shift that’s taken place.

100FeatureShelfLife3Brewing a Better Brand
by Brian Yaeger

You’ve come a long way, baby. By now it’s a somewhat tired advertising slogan, but in the craft brewing industry it’s true. Craft beer isn’t the quaint, lovable misfit it used to be. By 2007, the craft segment accounted for a whopping 3.7 percent of the overall beer market. One hundred issues of BeerAdvocate later, volume has tripled to the tune of nearly $20 billion annually. As a brand, “craft beer” doesn’t have a care in the world. Not so for the roughly 3,500 breweries contending for a foothold in this new marketplace.

“It is no longer good enough to make great beer,” says Steven Shomler of Shomler Consulting. “Breweries need to also know their brand story and tell it effectively.”

For Eugene, Ore.’s Ninkasi Brewing, that brand story is often told through two colors. Not to discount Total Domination IPA’s delectability, the state’s best-selling IPA, but co-owner Jamie Floyd picked teal and black, his favorite colors, because he wanted Ninkasi to “stand out on a wall full of beer.”

According to the 36th largest craft brewer’s official brand guidelines, “Teal is a friendly, happy color that helps to open the lines of communication between the heart and the spoken word. Whereas, black is the color of mystery, secrets and the unknown.” Adds Floyd, “People look at those colors and go, ‘Those are Ninkasi colors.’ Hop puns are one thing, but branding needs to tie-in in a meaningful way to the beer.”

Modern Times Beer, which Jacob McKean started in San Diego, exemplifies that notion. In 2007 McKean hadn’t yet become Stone Brewing’s social media coordinator, but by 2012 he’d conceptualized a brewery where “the packaging is an extension of everything else.” Its cans are so crisp and clean—“gender neutral with a vintage panache” as McKean put it—that other brewers have told him they’ve influenced their own rebranding efforts. Each white can features the brand name, logo, three succinct descriptors and tri-color bands at the bottom. Even the typography is proprietary.

“I wanted to create a package that respects the beer inside the can,” McKean says. “I don’t think of beer and design as being separate. In designing the package I wanted to convey very quickly what the beer was [using] sensory descriptors.”

Convincing someone to make a single impulse purchase won’t keep a company afloat, however. Marketing may help a customer make a connection, but maintaining that connection is vital. In 2012, Brad Hittle co-founded Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Conn., with three partners after years of experience at Rolling Rock and Pabst. In 2007, it may have been sufficient to declare your suds lightning in a bottle, muses Hittle, but today’s marketplace requires an entire team if your objectives involve getting beer beyond your taproom.

“You’re facing a different set of challenges and it’s evolving,” he says. “How do you get people to think of you first? Nobody’s monogamous anymore. There are lessons people can learn from the larger side of the industrial spectrum, but from the craft point of view, you need a disciplined approach to planning your business. Know what you stand for at the very beginning.”

Again, there’s no shortage of truly phenomenal beer now. But when it comes to marketing and branding, the most successful breweries will make quality products without losing sight of the beer business.

100FeatureShelfLife4The Death of Style
by Don Russell

Scan the beer menu at Philadelphia’s Khyber Pass Pub, and you’ll see a fairly typical lineup of eclectic brews, each listed with its alcohol content, glass type, description and style. There are IPAs, of course, and Stouts, Witbiers, sours, Saisons—the sort of list you’d expect at the city’s original specialty beer bar.

Your eye can’t help but stop at the entry for Kenzinger though, the flagship from Philadelphia Brewing Co. The name is a nod to the brewery’s location in the Kensington neighborhood, and a tribute to one of Philly’s long-extinct brands, Esslinger.

Is it a Blonde Ale? A Pale Lager? No, the menu says it’s “beer.” Full stop. It’s a perfect description, and not just because the brewery itself doesn’t bother to give it a specific style. Over the years, I’ve seen it described as a Pilsner or a Golden Ale. BeerAdvocate.com lists it as an American Pale Lager.

In fact, calling Kenzinger “beer” is the entirely predictable pushback on the explosion of styles that has accompanied the growth of craft brewing over the past seven or eight years—a period that has seen the Brewers Association’s list of defined styles nearly double to more than 140. The organization’s 41 pages of definitions include no fewer than nine types of German wheat beer, for crying out loud.

These guidelines don’t even account for completely fabricated styles that have cropped up in recent years. Quadrupel IPA? Imperial Helles? Black Witbier? Honestly, how do we classify Dock Street Walker, a smoked pale Stout made with goat brains?

This all began in 1977, with British beer writer Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer. Before Jackson, we tended to call things “English beer” or “Canadian beer” or whatever. But through his writing on the methods, ingredients, flavors and cultural traditions of various types of beer around the globe, Jackson established the whole notion of beer style.

He came up with all of 23 categories. Publication of the book was a seminal event, for it spurred the adventuresome to re-create unusual, nearly lost varieties for a market that was thirsty for something other than industrial yellow lager. By defining beer styles, Jackson showed the way to the likes of Double IPAs, sour beer… and chocolate peanut butter Porter.

Yes, we’ve reached a tipping point. Today, an unending evolution of flavor and branding threatens to render the entire notion of style meaningless. In its various iterations (black, red, Belgian-style, etc.), what does “IPA” mean anymore?

We can fret that, without recognized style guidelines, we lose the precise vocabulary necessary to understand our own palates. Or we can shrug, because sometimes what you really want is a beer.

Woodworker Vaughn Zellick walks by stacks of Spanish oak salvaged from Sierra Nevada's Mills River site. The planks were used in the new brewery and taproom.

Woodworker Vaughn Zellick walks by stacks of Spanish oak salvaged from Sierra Nevada’s Mills River site. The planks were used in the new brewery and taproom.

The Evolution of the Taproom
by Brian Yaeger

Other than Pittsburgh’s Church Brew Works, which occupies a historic deconsecrated church, no operational breweries or brewpubs in the US are anywhere close to a century old. As such, tasting room design keeps evolving. Take the godfather of craft breweries—Sierra Nevada—for example. It only added its pub in Chico 11 years after opening in 1980.

Decades of lessons later, founder Ken Grossman’s son Brian now presides over the company’s Asheville, N.C., expansion. As he learned in Chico, space matters. The Asheville taproom, including an upstairs jazz club, offers 50,000 total square feet, nearly doubling its California sibling. And that doesn’t count the mile-long, riverfront access and Germanic biergarten complementing the 200-plus-acre campus. An architectural firm created the plans, but the Grossmans had a hand in its design down to milling the red and white oaks, pine and poplar trees they had to clear.

Salvaged lumber is de rigueur for contemporary tasting rooms, even more so than growler light fixtures and bottle cap mosaic bar tops. In Worthy Brewing’s case, the handsome Bend, Ore., brewpub built in 2013 contains 9,000 board feet of old-growth Douglas fir repurposed from the old Oregon State Insane Asylum, where Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was set and where the movie adaptation was filmed. “I wanted to build a taproom that’s quintessentially Oregon,” says co-owner Roger Worthington. “That means wood and wood craftsmanship. And since Kesey’s the greatest Oregon novelist, that wood represents Oregon.”

Another attractive feature of any brewery’s public facilities—space and climate willing—is a hop yard, a detail gleaned from wineries set on vineyards. At Worthy, the quarter-acre hop garden is as pleasing to the eye as it is educational.

Sometimes brewery taprooms transform unexpectedly. John and Jen Kimmich opened The Alchemist Pub in Waterbury, Vt., in 2003. “All we wanted was to have a community pub,” says Jen. “It was forced to evolve because people flocked to our brewpub,” she adds, referring to the production facility they built nearby. Tragically in 2011, days before cans of their Heady Topper came off the new line, Hurricane Irene flooded the pub.

Today the Kimmiches are breaking ground in Stowe and will open The Alchemist’s new doors in 2016. But there won’t be a bar. Instead, Jen says, “because beer tourism is so crazy right now,” the new “visitor’s center” will serve as a tasting room and retail store—state law prevents them from selling pints although samples can be given. Overall, it will feature 15,000 square feet on 4.5 acres. And yes, in addition to the evergreens, cherry trees and maples, there will be decorative hop bines.

Taprooms are key to outreach for almost every brewery, making them more like living rooms than places of business. But as the Kimmiches learned, great beer brings growing pains. The Grossmans, on the other hand, have had longer to adapt, which is why the new Sierra Nevada taproom can handle 2,000 visitors daily. “A million beer tourists will come through this area this year,” says Brian. “A taproom doesn’t just showcase your craft but gives people a place to enjoy it. It’s critically important.”

As a new father, he mentioned one last element that annoys some customers but matters to others: a kid’s area.

Creature Comfort's Tropicalia in cans, made possible by investors. | Photo by Blake Tyers

Creature Comfort’s Tropicalia in cans, made possible by investors. | Photo by Blake Tyers

Funding the Dream
by Sarah Bennett

For the last 23 years, Dann Paquette has endured the beer industry’s unpredictable ups and downs. As a professional brewer in New England, he survived the boom and bust era of the early ’90s, and remembers a time when you couldn’t think about opening a brewery with less than $750,000.

But in 2008, Paquette and his wife Martha launched Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project with $9,000. As tenant brewers who rent space at a brewery and make the beer themselves, the money was enough to incorporate the business, buy labels and raw materials, and produce one batch. “I was just trying to figure out how to stay relevant,” Paquette says of his strategy at the time. “What we didn’t think is that we’d still be doing this seven years later.”

Pretty Things isn’t alone in its resourceful adaptation to the rising (and fluctuating) costs of opening and operating a brewery. In an increasingly crowded landscape where generous business loans are hard to come by and even small new brewing systems are hundreds of thousands of dollars, how are breweries raising the necessary capital?

Some, like Pipeworks Brewing Co. in Chicago and Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, N.C., turn to crowdfunding websites for some or all of their start-up costs. Others rely on individual investors, who receive a stake in the company. This practice is critical in places where alcohol laws or property values inhibit profitability for small breweries.

“In Georgia, you either have investors or you’re independently wealthy,” says Chris Herron, CEO of Creature Comforts in Athens, which raised more than $1.5 million from a pool of around 50 investors. Because breweries can’t sell directly to customers in Georgia, all beer has to be sold through costlier distribution channels. “We don’t have the ability to start small and have a tiny little brewery,” Herron says. “You can’t create enough beer to sell through a distributor to make the supply chain worth it.”

The investments have helped Creature Comforts grow quickly. Since opening last May with a 30-barrel brewhouse, it’s preparing to double its fermentation capacity for the second time, and is launching an ambitious barrel program.

Expansion also happens on a more organic level. In Seattle, co-founder Adam Robbins opened 7-barrel Reuben’s Brews in 2012 with his life savings—$250,000. Through its popular tasting room and limited bottle releases, he soon maxed out capacity, and spent two years searching for a larger location, just as the city’s rents began to soar.

“When we first opened we wanted to make sure we weren’t indebted to having to produce a lot of volume,” Robbins says, noting that Reuben’s Brews has already made more than 60 different kinds of beer. “We’re able to concentrate on the only thing that matters, which is what’s in the glass.”

Robbins’ new 15-barrel facility will open this month down the street from his original location (which will continue operating as a pilot system and barrel room). And although he’s increasing production of several core beers, his focus will be remaining small and local—and within his financial means. “If we were just a distribution brewery, we would have been bust,” Robbins says. “The most important thing to me is that we stay true to having a vibrant taproom that can be open every day.”