The State of American Craft Beer: Then, Now, and Tomorrow

Increased competition within craft beer, attacks from Big Beer, “startup brewers” looking to cash in on the boom: these are the hurdles facing craft beer as the first and second waves of brewers phase out and new generations take over. How will craft beer respond, and where are we headed as a nation of drinkers?

Brooklyn Brewery’s Steve Hindy and I were having lunch in Williamsburg when someone across the bar banged on the table and called out his name. “Steve!”

We both looked over, and everyone at the table had their glasses raised. “We love your beer”, one of them said. I asked Hindy if he knew them, and he shook his head no. He raised his glass in return, a big smile on his face, a touch of red coming through in his cheeks.

We were at the first bar that ever bought and served his beer, Teddy’s, just a few blocks from the brewery. We were talking about what differentiates “big beer”, the ones produced by corporate conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, from today’s large craft breweries — Brooklyn Brewery, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and Oskar Blues. He told me all about his grassroots beginnings, about how he, like all craft brewers that emerged in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, went door to door with his beer, offering samples to bar and restaurant owners, while big beer had complete control of all the distributors. The interruption from the other table had given Hindy something else to point out — something else that set craft brewers apart.

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“See”, he said, “that’s the main difference right there. [Craft brewers] are accessible, part of the neighborhood. How many Coors Light drinkers would be able to identify the CEO of MillerCoors?”

The spontaneous illustration highlighted one of the key aspects of the original craft beer movement: the concept of small brewers introducing locally made beer to their local neighborhoods. Even as today’s large craft brewers have blossomed and expanded, they have remain committed to where they grew up. But as Hindy and Co. begin to approach the age where retirement becomes a not-too-distant reality and the next generation of brewers begin to make a name for themselves, craft beer and its down-home roots are coming to a crossroads. As Kim Jordan of Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery put it,

“There’s a fairly big shift happening as the founders of this movement transition out. There’s a new dynamic brewing that we haven’t seen before.”

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Nerdy Meets Gnarly: Beers With Jim Koch of Sam Adams

Photo by Ryan Dearth 

I spin the beer glass by its stem with my right hand and then take a sip. It’s the Great American Beer Festival gold-medal-winning Tetravis we’re drinking on this sunny afternoon, just a little past 2 p.m. at MJ O’Connor’s Irish Pub in Boston’s Seaport District. The beer is Jim Koch’s own creation — a Belgian quad at over 10% alcohol — and he’s embracing it with the same passion a parent would a newborn kid. He sticks his nose in the glass rather emphatically and presents me with the bottle for closer inspection.

“Mmm”, he mumbles, his nose as far as it will go in the glass, eyes closed. “Yup. Pretty good.” He inhales through his nose deeply, audibly, dramatically, to the point where I wonder if there’s an audience behind me. “There’s a bit of detergent left on the glass, but it’s pretty good.”

Last year, Samuel Adams celebrated its 30th anniversary on the heels of more than doubling the sales of the second largest craft brewery, Sierra Nevada, in 2013. There were over 2,000 breweries in America operating within the craft beer market, and the closest anyone came was halfway there. That’s pretty damn impressive, and most of the credit falls into the lap of Koch (pronounced “cook”). While all the craft beer pioneers of the late ’80s and ’90s spoke about the importance of understanding the business of beer — not just making good beer — no one actually did until Koch. His beer sales back it up, as does the fact that he became the craft beer industry’s first billionaire in 2013.

But Koch’s success, determination and growth did not come without criticism from others within the industry who were less than impressed by his driven, all-bets-off approach. Much of the reason Sam Adams grew so dramatically is due to the fact that Koch was the first — and still only — craft brewer to use radio and television advertisements to promote his beer. This approach was something many craft brewers resented, as it seemed contradictory to the then-tiny craft beer industry’s altruistic quest to rise above the corporate-run breweries that dominated the American mainstream market.

“Call me jealous, or a curmudgeon”, Brooklyn Brewery’s Steve Hindy wrote in his new book, The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers Is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink, which recounts the history of the craft beer industry. “But I always thought Koch’s goal was to dominate — to own — the craft brewing revolution.”

Other accusations have not been as diplomatic. Hindy outright called Koch a “nerd” in his book, and recalled tales of other brewers who were frustrated by his aggressive marketing. Indeed, there is no figure in the craft beer industry more polarizing than Jim Koch. Some idolize him for his success in turning a family recipe into a billion-dollar business — something they themselves would like to achieve. Others see him as the opposite of a craft brewer: a Harvard graduate with a business-first attitude that goes against everything the industry set out to destroy.

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Steve Hindy: Brooklyn Brewery Founder, Mob Archnemesis

It’s 1996, and the New York Daily News runs an article about how a brand-new brewery under construction in Brooklyn will be the neighborhood’s first to open in 20 years. The next day, two limousines pull up outside the brewery’s construction site. The doors swing open, and out come two young men whose chests resemble beer barrels. They tell all the workers to go home, and stay home. Soon, the site is like a deserted movie set. Before leaving, the men deliver a message: The man in charge needs to call us, pronto.

In the craft beer industry, there’s no shortage of courageous characters whose adventurous tales would dominate a happy hour. Just to name a few: Dale Katechis of Oskar Blues rips up the hills of Lyons every morning on his mountain bike; Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada hikes his tail off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; and, before starting Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch spent three years as a guide for Outward Bound and summited the highest peak in the Western and Southern hemispheres, Aconcagua.

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Funny, then, that a soft-spoken, unassuming guy from New York City would have tales to top them all. Brooklyn Brewery Co-Founder Steve Hindy may not be able to remember the last time he went over the handlebars of a bike or shredded the gnar on the backside of Jackson Hole, but his experience as a war correspondent in the Middle East in the 1980s and his dealings with the mob in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the mid ’90s make a bloody elbow or a case of altitude sickness seem like child’s play.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1979, when he was stationed in the Middle East as a war correspondent for the Associated Press, Hindy was beginning to take an elevated interest in beer. Locals in Saudi Arabia could be beheaded for home brewing, but American diplomats living there were crafty enough to share their basement brews at American Embassies across the region. That beer, given its potential repercussions, probably tasted pretty damn good. Hindy sure liked it, and admittedly had a thought that it might be nice to have such a flavorful beer back in the States, where light lagers dominated. It was only a dream, though. He had much bigger issues at hand as a war correspondent.

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Proving Time Travel Possible While Trekking Through Myanmar

You’ll notice that many Myanmar women, children, and even men have a pale yellow paste on their faces. It’s called “Thanaka.” Made from ground bark, it’s applied to the face to cool the skin and serve as a sunscreen. Many people, like this little girl, make a fashion statement out of it. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Somewhere in a lab, scientists are working hard, bending space and time, trying to unlock the secrets of the universe. They’re talking about parallel universes, where the same life is playing out simultaneously many times with many different outcomes. They’re also wondering whether it’s possible to manipulate these universes, perhaps even swim upstream in a few of them. They’re curious as to whether they might be able to travel back in time, to see what it was like before. I have good news for those scientists: I’ve just returned from Myanmar (also called Burma), and I can tell you very honestly that time travel is indeed possible.

See, that’s the dark, ironic thing about people that have been repressed, either by their own government or a foreign one. It’s awful in every aspect, but there’s this tiny, small, admittedly self-indulgent glimmer in terms of tourism: When people are cut off from the outside world, things around them don’t evolve. They simply carry on, doing the things the way they’ve always done them; they’re aware of advances, but all the same, those advances can’t be made a reality for them. Time capsules are thus created, and sit waiting to be opened. This is the case in many parts of rural Southeast Asia, but it is immensely true of current-day Myanmar, a country that, for many years, was all but off limits to foreigners and has been wracked by civil wars since 1948.

In 2007, Myanmar welcomed about 300,000 tourists. This year, after several years of a newfound democracy movement, the country is preparing to accommodate over 5 million visitors. That’s an insane increase in a relatively short amount of time, skyrocketed by visitors from all over the world who are racing to visit the country in its early stages of tourism. Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are the four points on the main tourist circuit, and once hard-to-access regions are finally opening up via permit, such as the Chin State in the west or the far north near Hkakabo Razi, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. These are all places worth seeing, but they’re not where time travel takes place. The parallel universes exist in the space between.

After hiring a guide in Kalaw, a launching-pad type of town, I set out by foot through terraced rice fields, which climbed up the hillsides in huge, bowl-shaped amphitheaters. Had this been the fall, they would have all been green and lush and filled with water. But, in January, it’s about as dry as it gets in Central Myanmar. For me, this meant a little less scenery and a little more dust. For the local villages, the ones we were headed towards, it meant rationing food. For most of the plow-driving water buffaloes that worked these fields, it meant a few months off.

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In the Stockyards of Fort Worth, the West Survives

I was in the cattle pen learning how to throw a lasso, keeping my thumb down and helicoptering it above my head — when I told my instructor, Dave, how impressed I was with the Stockyards, Fort Worth’s neighborhood of cattle pens, brick roads, bull rings, saloons, boot makers and a honky tonk that has been restored to resemble its late 19th century form.

Tourism typically destroys culture, but in this case, even though you could smell the marketing dollars in the air, the endeavor was preserving the city’s past as a town of cowboys and cattle drives. It was great that I was here learning these old tricks of the trade, I told him. There aren’t many places you can learn to throw a lasso nowadays.

“It’s really important for us”, he said, “Because the cowboy is the American icon. It’s our past and I think a lot of the world still remembers us as cowboys.”

I’m not sure how deeply I agree with the last part, but the rapid disappearance of the cowboy is true. Dave said that my little 15-minute lesson had already taught me more than what most Texas high school students know about what it meant, and still means, to be a cowboy. This was a shock. The cowboy era was indeed a huge part of American history outside of the Northeast. Is it really almost gone?

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