Beer News

News by | Aug 2007 | Issue #8

By Lissa Harris and Julia Reischel

Belgian beer bereft of bottles

This summer, a severe shortage of new glass bottles is forcing small Belgian breweries to scramble for glass and, in some cases, scale back production.

“I’ve heard this from three different brewers this week: They don’t have anything to put it in,” says Will Shelton, a Massachusetts-based beer importer. “It seems to be a problem in Belgium especially.”

The shortage is affecting brewers throughout the European Union. In June, the VRT (the state sponsored Flemish news service) reported that some smaller Belgian breweries had to halt production while waiting for new bottles. InBev, the multi-national Belgian brewer, acknowledged the problems, but said that its own production is unaffected, according to a spokesman.

No one knows exactly why bottles are becoming so scarce. Higher-than-average beer sales for the first half of 2007 might have something to do with it, as might an overall dip in glass production across Europe following factory closures. The low bottle return rates across the country aren’t helping, either. But most inexplicably, hot weather might also be to blame—maybe folks are just drinking more beer?

Respectable beer storms Congress

Craft beer has officially entered the halls of power. On May 15, 34 members of the US House of Representatives gathered at the inaugural meeting of the brand-new House Small Brewers Caucus. The caucus is co-chaired by two representatives from Oregon, Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden, and has a singleminded mission: to “provide an interactive opportunity to learn about the dynamics of running a small business as a brewery, the brewing process itself and the quality and value of their beers and brewing activities.”

In practice, this means giving lobbyists a chance to bend the ears of lawmakers during craft beer receptions on Capitol Hill, which the caucus did, immediately after adjourning its first meeting by inviting all members of Congress to a beer-tasting reception at the Department of Agriculture.

Congressional caucuses—groups of lawmakers who band together to advocate for shared causes—have no official power, but some, like the Congressional Black Caucus, play an influential role in congressional politics. Charlie Papazian (see our profile), the president of the Brewers Association, said that the Small Brewers Caucus will not only raise craft beer’s profile in Congress, but will also help small brewers lobby for changes in regulations that affect their industry.

“There is a very real danger that the voice of the members of the small brewing community may not be heard over that of its larger brethren,” he said. “A group of legislators bound by a common interest in the history, tradition and excitement that are hallmarks of today’s small brewers should help ensure our issues get fair consideration.”

DeFazio, who is a homebrewer himself, is making a name for himself as craft beer’s champion in Congress. Last year, working with the Brewers Association, he sponsored another symbolic bill aimed at the industry: the establishment of American Craft Beer Week. What a guy!

Organic hops update

The organic beer on your local store shelf might have been made with non-organic hops—but fret not, that could all change very soon.

In June, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its first list of approved non-organic ingredients for use in organic food, which included hops. According to USDA regulations, up to 5 percent of foods labeled “organic” can come from ingredients on the list.

Because organic hops are extremely hard to find in the US, the inclusion of hops on the list looked like a good thing for organic brewers—and not just organic newcomer Anheuser-Busch, but small independent breweries like Wolaver’s and Peak Brewing Company, which have even more trouble sourcing scarce ingredients than the brewing giant. Both Peak and Wolaver’s have been using both non-organic and organic hops for years.

But the reprieve on hops proved to be a curse in disguise when organic food advocates protested the USDA’s ruling, claiming it was diluting organic standards. The outcry cast a public shadow of distrust over organic beer and sent the regulations back to the drawing board.

At press time, the USDA had not yet made a final ruling. For their part, Anheuser-Busch claims they’ve decided to use organic hops no matter what the outcome—but it won’t be easy. “We don’t want to be part of that controversy, so we just decided to go organic,” said Doug Muhleman, the vice president of brewing operations and technology at Anheuser-Busch’s US subsidiary. “But we know how many pounds of hops we have in the larder, and based upon sales, we would anticipate running out sometime in the fall.” Caught between consumer advocates, organic hop shortages and the USDA, it may be a rocky few years for organic brewers large and small, no matter which way the agency rules. But there’s hope that the controversy will encourage more hop growers to go organic—and that would be a good thing for everybody.

Beer memoriam

July saw the deaths of three beer luminaries. On July 2, John White, the Lincolnshire-based man behind White Beer Travels, died suddenly after 14 years of organizing his signature “beer hunts,” which took him all over Europe and the United States. At 62 years old, he was a long-term member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and the author or numerous detailed beer guides.

“Beer was John’s life,” writes fellow Guild member Pete Brown. “He devoted countless hours and days to scrupulously cataloging bars and beers, particularly Belgian beers, which were his real passion.”

Virginia MacLean, who helped Pete Slosberg build Pete’s Wicked Ale into an American institution in the 1990s, died on June 4 in Mountain View, CA, after a four-year battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer that affects bone marrow. She was the inspiration for Reunion Beer, a limited-run Slosberg ale made with help from fellow PWA alum Alan Shapiro to raise funds for myeloma and bone cancer research. She was 44 years old.

“Virginia was an extraordinary person,” Shapiro and Slosberg wrote in an email. “She faced her fight against multiple myeloma with strength, dignity, grace and optimism. She was not only the inspiration for the Reunion project, but an active participant in every facet. Even as she realized the odds of her own survival were diminishing, she pushed harder and harder to make Reunion a success.”

George Bateman, the resolutely independent and gentlemanly head of the venerable Batemans Brewery in Lincolnshire, England, died on June 25. He was famous for his advocacy of cask-conditioned beers and his epic three-year negotiation with his two siblings over the fate of the brewery in the 1980s, at the end of which he finally convinced them to sell him their shares of the business.

“Business people, he believed, were there to serve their employees,” write his two children, Jaclyn and Stuart Bateman, on the Bateman & Sons website. “An old fashioned approach he knew, but one shared by his family and co-directors and one which has seen his small company prosper and gain him the respect of many of his peers.”