Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Greatest Crime in Craft Beer

With a title that makes a claim such as this, the mind races through probably dozens of possible offenses perpetrated against or even by the craft beer industry itself. Any of these offenses may qualify, depending on your personal drinking preferences and level of passion for today’s craft beer movement. Could it be the bland light lagers forced upon us by the major commercial breweries, whom we all know to be evil incarnate? Could it be the radical and experimental (and often mediocre) brews put out by craft breweries in an attempt to recapture their bleeding edge? Could it even be the overzealous online fans of craft beer themselves?

In fact, the greatest crime in the craft beer world today is something so innocuous and subtle that it most likely has escaped notice by most craft beer consumers. It has crept upon us silently over the past few years and has spread now widely in some areas, especially with the advent of the more upscale drinking establishments and fashionable gastropubs. It is not something new that has been added but instead something that has gone missing: the simple
16-ounce pint glass.

The pint glass has been the standard of goods exchange for draft beer retailers for generations of beer drinkers. A  U.S. liquid pint is a volume of measure defined as 16 ounces, or around 473 milliliters. (The British went so far as to regulate the servings of beer by law centuries ago, hence their 20-ounce imperial pint.) The name pint has its roots in the Old French and ultimately in the Latin picta, meaning “painted,” referring to the serving line painted on an ale vessel. The very definition of this word has historical origins tied to the selling, serving and consumption of beer – but all that may have now come to an end.

This crime is not one committed by the craft beer brewers themselves but by on-premise retailers, who have quietly started to replace their standard pint glasses with either similar-looking 14-ounce glasses of the same shaker pint design or stylized glasses of 12 or even 10 fluid ounces in volume. This is ostensibly a cost-cutting measure – one often accompanied by a price increase as well, so the consumer sometimes now pays more and receives less beer pulled from the tap. Understandably, a business must cover its expenses and ultimately make a profit but the consumer’s salary is not rocketing skyward, either.

This is the greatest craft beer crime because it has broken the standard metric of exchange between craft beer consumers and the retailers they support. No longer can we compare one establishment to another on the basis of price as their serving sizes cannot be relied upon to be equivalent, and some retailers are unjustly accused of being more expensive when they are actually the same or cheaper on a per-ounce basis. The consumer metric between the ultimate purchaser and the brewery, the 12-ounce bottle, still stands but for how long? Will brewers begin to adopt a 10-ounce bottle size or 8-ounce can for the same purpose?

(Actually, this trend has already started, albeit on a very isolated scale. Some breweries use the "stubby" bottles for their product, a throwback design from decades ago. This bottle style does have some distinct and practical functional advantages for brewers but it holds only 11.2 ounces in volume instead of the standard 12 ounces. Fortunately, the ubiquity of the iconic longneck brown bottle is a difficult tradition and marketing package from which to deviate.)

Nor are craft breweries entirely innocent in this practice. Customized brewery glassware is often provided to retailers, specialized glasses etched with the company logo that are meant to be the ideal serving vessel and volume for perhaps a boozy barleywine or pungent sour ale. For high-gravity products or limited-edition exceptions such as these, smaller portion sizes are understandable and acceptable but too often a simple sessionable amber or wheat ale is served in the same glass. Breweries do not object because they are eager for the logo to be displayed and happy for the free promotion.

As consumers, the only force we have is the budget we choose to spend on purchasing such products and supporting these retailers. Watch for the serving size you are offered next time you enjoy a craft beer from a fresh tap, and verify its volume if necessary. Challenge retailers that do not use the 16-ounce pint as their serving standard, and patronize those that still adhere to a reliable and universally accepted metric of sale.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dallas as a Craft Beer Town

Something strange has occurred in Dallas during the past year, something not known since the mid-1990s when dot-com money flowed freely and commercial ventures were embraced recklessly and without long-term thought. Dallas is rediscovering craft beer—and making up for lost time in a big way. With no production breweries in Dallas at the beginning of last year, by the end of 2012 at least five are projected to be in full operation.

The last commercial brewery to operate in Dallas proper was the Great Grains Brewery, a terrible operation that mercifully shut down for financial reasons in 2006 over a rather trivial TABC regulation that left it unable to recover. Since that time, Rahr & Sons Brewing (opened 2004) has thrived in Fort Worth and Franconia Brewing (opened 2008) in McKinney but nothing in the Dallas area per se. The only non-chain brewing that has persisted within the city limits has been the Humperdinks brewpub on Greenville Avenue, an orphaned spin-off of the Pacific Northwest-based Big Horn Brewing franchise that went independent a few years ago.

To begin the charge, in October of last year the Deep Ellum Brewing Company became the first craft brewery to open in Dallas in more than five years, setting up in the south end of the Deep Ellum arts district. Owners Scott Frieling and John Reardon hired young brewer Drew Huerter away from the St Louis area, with names such as Schlafly and Mattingly Brewing on his resume. Their first beers have been style-twisting crowd pleasers, a crowd that has regularly mobbed the brewery ever since they opened Saturday tours to the public.

Almost immediately on the heels of Deep Ellum Brewing came Peticolas Brewing, setting up in a small place in an industrial park west of downtown near the Meddlesome Moth. With a legal family legacy in Dallas going back almost as long as there has been a city, Michael Peticolas left a career as a lawyer to pursue his dream of independent brewing. His is a much smaller and more personal operation than Deep Ellum, taking all financial, marketing and brewing responsibilities upon himself and his young family. Peticolas’s first beer was released in January of this year to almost immediate success.

The third in this initial triad to develop throughout the prior year is Lakewood Brewing, who only recently acquired a lease on a site in the White Rock Lake area. Although owner and brewer Wim Bens may have grown up in the Lakewood area of east Dallas, he did so with a Belgian birth certificate and a young enthusiasm for homebrewing. His previews of beers at various promotional events have been excellent, and Lakewood Brewing is expected to be in full production by late spring.

Two newcomers to the Dallas beer scene are also expected to be open later this year. From the common amateur brewing interest of three local friends (Jack Sparks, Brent Thompson and Kat Stevens), Reunion Brewing is born from the coincidence of these three reuniting once again in Dallas for business. Their production brewery is currently under development in west Dallas not too far from Peticolas’ current location.

The second new craft brewery will be Four Corners Brewing of the Oak Cliff area, also the venture of three partners with a shared passion. George Esquivel, Steve Porcari and Greg Leftwich have already hired award-winning veteran brewer John Sims for their operations, and have only recently located a commercial site. With hopes to be open by Labor Day and plans for as many as ten employees their first year, Four Corners may outpace all the rest despite a late start.

To see five production craft breweries sprout within the space of twelve months is simply unprecedented for a city like Dallas, more characteristic of the brewing culture of Austin. Is there room for all these businesses (plus those not yet named) to survive together in our North Texas market? Is the craft beer nature of Dallas truly shifting after all these years, embracing the movement as so many other cities have already? Only time can answer.