Special Post: Craft Beer Summit
I can’t think of a better way to start off the week, then with great craft beer and conversation. On February 25th, Riverwalk Brewery hosted a mini craft beer summit at their Newburyport brewery, bringing together a small group of local brewers, craft beer bloggers and enthusiasts to discuss the current happenings in the craft beer industry, all the while sampling various selections of local craft beer.
In general, the public still held to several beliefs about beer drinking. First, that it was better than drinking water. Second, that beer was a foodstuff and a healthful supplement to the entire family’s diet. And third, that beer drinking was an acceptable way to promote social discourse, with an overall positive impact on the community.
— Gregg Smith, Beer in America
When I started on this blogging project, I wanted to share in the adventure with anyone crazy enough to appreciate the undertaking. One evening, while picking up a weekend Growler at Riverwalk, my local brewery (Doesn’t everyone have a local producer of great craft beer?), I mentioned my blog, and almost immediately, I was offered assistance, if I needed any. I knew I would require some help later in the year, when the states get far away, and the distribution system vanishes, but I thought it would be fun to do some collaboration earlier in the year, so I asked them if they would like to host week 6, Massachusetts. The idea was that it would be interesting to have the brewers select craft beer from the state and talk about it. From that idea, the craft beer summit was born, however due to scheduling issues, we couldn’t all get together until I was covering New Hampshire.
The evening started out with the requisite introductions, and then we dove straight into sampling a few different breweries from New Hampshire. One of the things I wanted to get out of this sampling was a better understanding of how a brewer would approach sampling a craft beer. Brewers spend their days, perfecting their art, monitoring the quality of their own products and as a result, they develop a unique eye towards the product that the general public does not have. I was looking forward to a glimpse into this world, so I asked Steve, the head brewer at Riverwalk, what he looks for when evaluating a beer. Just like you or I, most times, a brewer likes to just sit back and enjoy a beer. It can’t always be about work. But when he does turn his focus to the product, he likes to get into what a beer is all about, and this starts by classifying the beer.
Humans have a strong tendency to categorize. When we encounter something new, we like to place it in a category so we can better comprehend it, and craft beer is no exception. Walking down the beer isle, we are confronted with a large variety of craft beer styles, ranging from pale lagers to imperial stouts. It is these styles that help us establish a set of parameters so that we can communicate with each other about the beer. When someone tells you they had a wonderful IPA with dinner, you can easily picture what the beer was like, with its hop heavy taste and golden color. Using these parameters we can quickly get into the spirit of the beer, and better appreciate what it is all about.
The question about sampling craft beer was then turned to Matt from Review Brews, to see how as someone that writes about beer approaches the topic. Matt explained how his focus was less about the spirit of the beer, and more on the story of the beer and the brewer. His goal is to get to the inspiration of the beer and let the brewer tell the story. I loved hearing about this approach. There are plenty of review sites on the web today, but finding ones that look beyond the technical aspects of the beer and provide that link between the brewer and potential consumers, is a rare and necessary niche.
One of the things that makes this year-long blogging project interesting is that I am often constrained in the craft beer available from a specific state, and more than often I am forced to go with a beer style I wouldn’t normally choose for a typical weekend. In some instances, I have discovered amazing bottles of beer, but in others, I have found beer that I just couldn’t get into. Some of those hard to handle brews fall under the category of extreme beer, the next topic to come up at the summit.
The extreme beer movement is exemplified by Dogfish Head Brewery, with their slogan Off-centered stuff for off-centered People, Dogfish has brewed some crazy beer. Incorporating ingredients such as blue-green algae (to make a naturally green beer) and Botrytis-infected grapes, Dogfish has consistently pushed the boundaries of what could and should be included in a beer. It is this boundary exploration, and the use of atypical ingredients, that established what is now referred to as extreme beer. This branch of craft beer brewing has increased yearly and has now grown large enough to have its own festival.
The general opinion of the brewers at the summit was that the extreme beer movement, while not a direction they intended to take any of their products, was definitely an important area for craft beer to explore. Brewing beer has always been, and always will be a healthy mix of art and science. And it is the art component that the extreme beer movement addresses. By constantly pushing the boundaries and testing the limits, new discoveries are made. And from the consumer point of view, there will always be a market for individuals willing to experience these boundaries, no matter how far they extend.
One point raised, that I completely agree with is that extreme beer should be sold in smaller bottles, making it easier to have the experience without the concern of wasting an otherwise expensive beer if the experience is unenjoyable.
While the extreme beer movement is on one end of the spectrum, the session beer movement sits on the other side of the craft beer movement, establishing its own fan base.
Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.
In my experience, the session beer movement is really starting to take-off, and there are a few craft brewers in this area that have really embraced it. One particular beer that was mentioned at the summit was Tafelbier from Notch Brewing, and Riverwalk provided a sampling of their own session beer, called Uncle Bobs Bitter to help keep the topic on track.
Another topic that came up, multiple times actually, was sales and marketing, and we covered a full range of sub-topics here, from labeling to availability to tap lines, and it was very interesting to hear about the issues, constraints and concerns within the industry. One of the more interesting conversations pertaining to sales was the various constraints imposed on the brewers within each state.
This region of New England is small, and with just 2 hours of driving in almost any direction, you can quickly be in a different state, making it simple for even for a small craft beer business to sell their product in multiple states. This does present a problem, as each state has completely different laws regarding alcohol sales. We heard stories about unknowingly trying to make sales in Maine without proper approval, to a brewer not being permitted to pour their own product at events in New York state.
This topic really hit a cord for me, and gets at the spirit of this blogging project. As I have been trying to acquire beer from each state, I have also had the opportunity to experience first hand the odd rules and regulations each state applies to alcohol. The quote that summed it up best was: We are a bunch of small countries.
Overall, the biggest theme that cut through every conversation was education. For too many years, the options available for beer has been very limited and controlled by a few very large breweries. By educating the bar and restaurant staff, and not just the customers, about craft beer, the brewers can help the consumers establish a better categorization of what this movement it is all about. Through these educational efforts, the craft brewers win in the end, because not only did they develop a better, more enjoyable beer. They also helped to free us, the consumers, from having to settle on a tasteless beer designed for satiating a large market audience.
All in all, it was a great night, with 13 different beers sampled, and a wide range of topics about the craft beer industry discussed, I am looking forward to doing it again soon.
Thanks to Matt from ReviewBrews, for the excellent conversation and the IPA from Tree House Brewery, that was some good stuff. And thanks to Ryan from 2beerguys, for bringing in a barely 12 hour old Royal Impy Stout from Portsmouth Brewery, and providing insightful and excellent conversation. Be sure to check out both of their sites, for plenty of content on local craft beer and the craft beer industry.
Also, thanks to TJ and his wife, both from Cape Ann Brewing, not only did they bring along 3 excellent craft beers for us to try, they also kept the conversation lively, providing insight into the daily live of brewery work.
And a very special thanks to Alyssa and Steve at Riverwalk Brewing for organizing and hosting the event. The group of people they assembled made the night fun and educational, and the beer they provided was excellent.