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TPFLet me at least attempt to be brief, here:

“Drink Local” does not mean settling for inferior beer, wine, or liquor.

Case in Point: Our darlin’ daughter, Naomi, and her fiancee, Tricia, took a little day trip out to Vashon Island last Saturday. For those not in Sea-patch, Vashon is a small, sleepy chunk of scruffy rurality that lies just across Elliott Bay and just a couple of miles south of downtown Seattle. It’s famous only, really, as the home of Chris Camarda and his universally celebrated winery, Andrew Will. I had a bad experience at the local burger joint a couple of years back and haven’t been back since. So, when I heard Naomi was there, I asked her to BOLO for breweries, as I knew of exactly zero Vashon folks brewing anything besides coffee.

Cliff's Vashon Brewing Company IPA

Cliff’s Vashon Brewing Company IPA

About two hours later, we got a frantic phone call with news that there is, indeed, such a thing as Cliff’s Beers, Vashon Brewing Company and that Cliff was eager to have me try his beers. We didn’t hook up with her until the next evening and wound up bringing home Cliff’s “Aroma Therapy” IPA. According to Naomi, Cliff’s brewery is about 10′ x 10′ and it was hard to even fit Cliff and his two guests in there.

Now, understand that A) I love nano-breweries, but that B), they are rarely any more than just very good.

Cliff’s IPA was STUNNING…No, let me rephrase that: EFFIN’ STUNNING. Big, luminous amber, just about the most aromatic IPA I have ever experienced, and body for days. It’s not heavy and ponderous but has that sort of intensity and, unlike many, MANY IPAs that I taste with such numbing regularity, it is actually refreshing and would be a killer beer for summer picnics and a ridiculous variety of foods. The flavors are absolutely haunting. Judye and I debated what exactly we were tasting for a solid twenty minutes: Graham cracker? Something herbal but not herbs; more like a savory/sweet leaf of some sort? What in wine would be called “cigar box”? Caramel apple? Apricots? Check, check, check, check, and check – and more. This was a beer that any one of the larger craft breweries would proudly slap a label on, and NO, I am not exaggerating this one molecule. Don’t believe me? Get your fanny on the ferry and go see Cliff. Tell him you want the Aroma Therapy and then find a good water view (not difficult, on Vashon) and drink the stuff.

Bustling downtown Vashon

Bustling downtown Vashon

You’re welcome.

In a year which is not even half over but has already been one of the best beer years of my ridiculously long life, this was nothing short of a revelation. With the sole exceptions of the original Slippery Pig (a Poulsbo, WA, brewery that used to be run out of a garden shed) and John Julum’s Big Block Brewing (which may be a nano but, if it is, is to most nanos what a suitcase nuke is to a cherry bomb), this was easily the best nano-brewery ale I’ve ever tasted. Cliff, old pal, MAKE MORE. Don’t tweak a damned thing and at least try to place some kegs somewhere besides Vashon, ’cause I don’t want to have to watch my back for that burger guy while enjoying your shocking beer.  95 PointsReally.

I mentioned this because I really do think Cliff has done something that deserves attention but also to make a larger point.

images“Drink Local” should be more than one of those contemporary axioms that we all pay lip service to but treat casually. I’ve watched for better than a decade, now, as huge roving hoards of what I regretfully must describe as “chumps” dashed around to beer shops and bars and grocery stores and probably even Linens ‘N’ Things, in search of bottles of Pliny the Elder, the bombastic, hugely-overrated thing that put Russian River Brewing Company on the map. I’ve also watched many of those same obsessives chase around after Bourbon County and Hunahpu’s and Parabola and Westvleteren and, basically, anything that’s gotten some pub and is hard to get. I said what I said about Pliny not because I hate the stuff. It’s a pretty good beer, really, if you like the sensation of licking a pine tree – which I do, in certain moods. But, because of  the irrational cult which has sprouted around it, Pliny, at this point, represents everything that’s wrong with the Craft Beer Culture, circa 2015. I can’t even look at the label, anymore. As I’ve written before here, I’ve held seven different IPA tastings in the past ten years, in which the only common beer was Pliny, and surrounded it with between five and eight other Imperial-Double IPAs. The attendees were mostly (about 70%) beverage industry professionals,with a smattering of average beer geeks, many of whom were professed Pliny fans. In NONE of these blind tastings was Pliny chosen as the best ale on the table. In two, it finished dead last and no better than fourth in any of them. It “lost” to beers which Include Ninkasi “Tricerahops”, Deschutes “Hop Henge”, Boundary Bay IPA, Old Schoolhouse Imperial IPA, Moylan’s “Hopsickle”, Midnight Sun “Cohoho”, Dogfish 90 Minute, Green Flash “West Coast”, Bell’s “Hopslam”, Victory “DirtWolf”, and Bear Republic “Racer X”, among many others.

plinyIn NONE of these tastings, in which everyone was asked to write down any beer they felt they could name, did anybody identify it as Pliny. And three people were absolutely convinced that it was Oskar Blues “Gubna”.

Because of our national character (“More is More”, “Bigger Is Better!”) and the natural human tendency to compete, we spawn these legends surrounding things of all types that we find hard to get. If RRBC suddenly decided to contract Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas and a few other of their brewer buddies to brew more Pliny, so that the mammoth demand could finally be satisfied, you’d watch Pliny become just another really good beer, overnight.

Drink Local, Charlestonian Edition: The Remarkable Holy City Brewing

Drink Local, Charlestonian Edition: The Remarkable Holy City Brewing/Photo by outlanderandy.wordpress.com

The point of this post – and that “brief” business is now exposed for the fantasy it was – is that, if you let go of that fixation on The Hottest New Wine  and The Shiny New Brewery and That Must-Have Scotch, just by maybe 50%, you’ll suddenly find time to visit all of the places in your area that are making beer, wine, and liquor. If you taste without expectations, stay open to surprises, and don’t obsess on how your friends will judge your choices or whether people will think you’re Cool, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find something that leaves you weak-kneed and swooning. Given the rather stunning uptick in quality of everything in the adult beverage realm, lately, I betcha you’re gonna find an IPA that stacks up strongly with Pliny. Beer is now being brewed and brewed beautifully in all 50 states. Two of my own personal Top Twenty beers of 2014 were made in Nebraska; one more in Iowa! The chances that somebody within a few hours drive of you is making a great Vodka or Bourbon are actually pretty good. The distilling business is booming in much the same way wine boomed in the 90s and beer is exploding now. And almost every state is now making wine. Estates wines from Arizona and Missouri made my Top Twenty Wines list for 2014. And finding those gems like Nebraska Brewing’s “Fathead” or Toppling Goliath “Assassin” or Mount Pleasant Winery NV Tawny Library Vol. XIV Port or Stein’s Distillery “Big Buck” Bourbon…and, yes, Cliff’s Beer, Vashon Brewing Company “Aroma Therapy”, is becoming almost routine. That thing we all came to love about America’s independent brewing culture – the spirit of co-operation and community that has distinguished Craft Beer from almost every other business class – is breeding serious, world-class accomplishment at warp speed. That lesson has not been lost on artisan distilling and has even come to be an article of faith in wine, a discipline in which secrets used to be closely guarded but which is becoming far more collaborative and open.

Photo from Black Ankle Vineyards

Photo from Black Ankle Vineyards

“Drink Local” is NOT just a slogan used as a bow to Small Business. It is a literal, practical buying strategy for astute drinkers of beverages with octane content. At some point in the futures of all these folks who chase around after The Next Big Thing, they’ll find the influence of their peer groups waning and discover that making their own minds up about what they like to drink is actually preferable to spending a week and $85 in gas to chase down the latest Bourbon County sighting. If many of those reading this are not, in fact, situated in a hometown which offers the embarrassment of riches that we have to choose from here, in and around Seattle, here’s a great piece of advice…

The way you help grow that sort of target-rich environment of possible beer/wine/spirits is to SUPPORT – with $$$, not just with empty talk – those people around you, those brave and resourceful folks who have hung their asses out there over the financial Abyss to pursue their Dream . If “Drink Local”, in your case, means expanding the definition of “Local” to include your entire state, drink that version of Local. And don’t just limit it to booze. Buy local ice cream, sodas, cheese, movies, tools, cars, books…everything. As your hometown economy prospers, YOU win: better products, rising property values, more venture capital…the works.

“Drink Local” Is…Smart.

DON’T be a Chump.

IF YOU OWN A BREWERY, WINERY, OR DISTILLERY IN ANOTHER PART OF THE U.S., THE POUR FOOL WOULD LOVE TO REVIEW YOUR WARES. IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, PLEASE SEND SAMPLES TO THIS ADDRESS…AND THANKS!:

 

TPFSubs

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8 thoughts on ““Drink Local” and A Guy Named Cliff: Don’t Be A Chump

  1. Steve,

    For about a year now, I have looked forward to opening my inbox every Monday morning and starting off my week with some fresh, unfiltered commentary on Craft Beer and the overarching paradigm shift that it represents in this country. This Pour Fool piece, once again, did not disappoint.

    Although I sometimes find minor points of disagreement in your writings, I wholeheartedly respect your commitment to portraying YOUR view of the topics you choose to post, despite any flack you may receive. This post is one that I could find absolutely NOTHING to disagree with.

    I am currently consulting on the beverage program for a new restaurant opening in Iowa City, Iowa, and it is my goal to introduce that community to the notion of “drinking (and eating) local”. I currently live in Chicago, and am slightly spoiled when it comes to having my choice of quality local craft beer (slightly… because it is nothing compared to what you have at your fingertips every single day), so I was a tad weary at the proposition of offering ONLY-Iowa craft beer on tap in a state that doesn’t register on any of my respected sources of beer wisdom. My apprehensions quickly started to dissipate as I wandered through my research, and they vanished entirely during my 2-day, 8-brewery tour of the best of what Iowa City and Des Moines have to offer. This is a state on the brink of establishing itself as a craft brewing powerhouse (…again…relative to the surrounding region), and we will have no problem filling all 12 taps with great, local Iowa beer.

    The reason for my (coincidentally not-brief) comment is that, you will be surprised to hear, my Tour did not include a trip to Decorah and I did not taste one single Toppling Goliath beer. I must clarify that, originally, my 2-day, 8- brewery tour was supposed to be a 3-day, 9-brewery tour, saving what I had thought was the best brewery in Iowa for last. However, I quickly learned that Toppling Goliath had recently committed to brewing its beers in Florida, at the Brew Hub production brewery, so that it could better match the growing demand for TG beers in Iowa’s neighboring states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and my beer-thirsty state of Illinois. Imagine my surprise as I heard this news at every brewery and every restaurant I stopped at in Iowa. An IOWA BREWERY, brewing its beer IN FLORIDA, so that it can be SHIPPED BACK TO IOWA. My mind was filled with images of 312 being brewed in Youngstown, New York, and enjoyed by naive Chicagoans who think they are drinking Chicago craft beer. I admit that I do not think TG is coming anywhere CLOSE to the atrocity that is being committed by Goose Island, but, sadly, I will admit that my sense of wonder and awe at what I was to experience in Decorah became marred with smudges of deception and illegitimacy. When it came time to cut our voyage short, the decision was quite easy to call off our tasting at TG’s brewery.

    I am sure that TG’s beers being brewed in Florida are just as good, or at least nominally close, to the quality that was being cooked up for the past few years in Northeast Iowa. I am still excited, or maybe it is more accurate to say ‘curious’, to try a few of them out for myself (after all, they’ve been compared to 3F multiple times…so that claim ALONE is worth (in)validating). But I am going to have a really hard time justifying their inclusion amongst a collection of tap handles that are TRULY Iowa beers, despite how good the liquid product actually is.

    I am very interested in your thoughts on this matter, and would love to talk more about it if you feel inclined. Also, if you wish to try some high quality beers from the other noteworthy breweries in the state, I would be more than happy to put you in touch with the brewers and owners so that they can send you some of their suds. Iowa racked up 3 combined medals at GABF and WBC this past season, the two that I tried are easily some of the best beers I’ve ever had.

    Sincerely,
    Jack Huber

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    • To me, there’s a world of difference between taking your recipe to a contract brewer, overseeing the production of the beer, and putting your label on it and just buying a generic beer and slapping your name on the bottle. Most craft breweries that generate the notoriety of TG can’t handle the demands of the marketplace. Taking a brewery from a 1,000 barrel annually to 10,000 involves an outlay of well over $100,000 and increases in staffing and infrastructure. As long as the contractor is following the recipe and the brewers at TG are happy with the product, I have no gripe with that at all. Brew Hub isn’t imposing its will upon Toppling Goliath, as opposed to the situation of AB buying a brewery, dumping all its old product off at close-out prices, and then dumbing down the recipes in the name of “efficiency”. Brewers like Brian Strumke of Stillwater and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin don’t even own breweries. Does that invalidate Stillwater and Evil Twin beers? Not to me, it doesn’t. The issue here, as with AB, is control and intentions. Are the TG guys trying to make their usual great beer? Yes. Are Strumke and Jarnit-Bjergsø creating at a high level? Undoubtedly. If nobody contract brewed, we’d have a lot of great beer never getting made. I have no issue with it at all.

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      • Besides this contract brew option is much, much better than selling off to expand. This will allow them to generate enough money to expand eventually. We’ll see more of these hybrid business models over time, which is a pretty cool option and I doubt the brewers would accept any less quality than they get out of their own brewery. Ultimately, the money will go towards supporting a local company, eventually growing local employment while allowing them to expand their brand beyond their local state. I think you should have no issue putting them on tap.

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        • This is the beer corrolary to that tired debate about negociant wines that are bought as excess production from real, reputable wineries and blended for resale. Most people irrationally feel that the act of buying surplus wine – which is immensely valuable to small wineries – somehow renders that artisanal wine invalid. In truth, a LOT of wineries would go bankrupt without that ready cash and overworked breweries would lose all momentum if they simply couldn’t meet demand. Phenomena like Pliny will happen a lot less as beer geeks become more knowledgeable and mature out of childishness like chasing Bourbon County into the next state. Ultimately, what brewers do when they contract is hire a bunch of assistant brewers who already know what they’re doing, just as if they read resumes and hired actual staff, minus a time-intensive learning curve. If contracting results in beers just as good, where the hell is the problem?

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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