In a total of over 1,000 breweries I’ve seen in the past eight years, I’ve found THREE that I could honestly say were just wastes of good space and brewing materials. That’s not three per year, either. Three, total.
From the United States.
More and more, lately, I read hand-wringing laments about “all these new, sub-standard breweries” and, as I said in a previous post – “All These Below-Average Breweries: Where Are They?” – from December of 2015, I’m not seeing it.
To me, a guy who visits an average of 200 breweries a year, the smallest category in American Indie Brewing is “bad breweries“. In a total of over 1,000 breweries I’ve seen in the past eight years, I’ve found THREE that I could honestly say were just wastes of good space and brewing materials. That’s not three per year, either. Three, total. From the United States.
The next smallest category is “great breweries” because “great” is a Thing and has parameters: must make exceptional beers across the board, must have rare or zero clunkers, must be friendly in dealings with their customers, and good at existing in the beer trade. I have no problem at all naming these companies. Here’s a very incomplete list…
Reuben’s Brews…Holy Mountain Brewing…pFriem Family Brewers…Blackberry Farm Brewery…Arizona Wilderness Brewing…Hangar 24 Brewing…Ale Industries…21st Amendment Brewing…Stone Brewing…Three Taverns Brewing…Crooked Stave Brewing…River North Brewing…Cedar Springs Brewing…Jackie O’s Brewing…Cigar City Brewing…Burial Brewing…Great Notion Brewing…Deschutes Brewery…Fort George Brewing…Logsdon Farmhouse Ales…The Ale Apothecary…Selkirk Abbey Brewing…Brewery Vivant…Drake’s Brewing…Societé Brewing…The Rare Barrel…Lawson’s Finest Liquids…Jester King Brewing…etc., etc., etc.
But those two categories, combined, comprise maybe 15% of all the breweries in the US and likely the world. The exact same thing can be said about wineries and craft distilleries. And has been – to grim, bloody death, for literal centuries. The debates about this winery versus that one and which is great and which is merely there were raging when I started selling wine, in 1995, and is still one of the five hot-button issues for all wine weenies, everywhere.
Artisan distilling is a newer culture but that argument has already cropped up and is only going to get worse. Why? Well, some of it is the usual All-American impulse to – stealing a phrase from Pete Carroll – “always compete“. But some of it is the far deeper human tendency to form tribes, cluster around a particular totemic object or cause or, more darkly, a person. (Bad comb-over, “grab ’em by the puzzy”, weak chin?) We Yankees LOVE us some surrogate-gladiator competition. Look around, right now, in the month of March: not content with the wildly compelling athletic smack-down known as “March Madness” – and I have to make this quick, because North Carolina will be playing in about an hour – we now have hundreds of brackets done up for competing breweries and beers and even whiskeys, dog photos, cat videos, and, naturally, hot women and cheesecake shots of firemen. We’ll turn anything into a fuggen tractor pull. We can’t seem to restrain ourselves, which is very odd, to me, in a culture like craft brewing, which has built its unprecedented boom on the basis of almost universal and unforced, unspoken cooperation. But that’s US, folks. We must compete, even if it doesn’t make sense.
And it’s this all-pervading sense of “Us Versus Them” that drives the talk of “sub-standard breweries“. MANY people – think millions of goobers like me, at keyboards – feel that not only criticism but lack of sufficient adulation, or its shady cousin “respect“, is an attack on their own choices and tastes and intelligence. Euro-beer dorks, aghast at the marketplace dominance of American Indie/craft beer over their darling Eurobrews, are constantly running down craft brewing, as if their haughty dismissal will suddenly gain traction and cause the wide-spread withering and eventual extinction of American independent brewing. They see acceptance of all these wild-ass ales and “not authentic” lagers and weird experimental beers – which they don’t think are beers at all – as a dismissal of them and their point of view. (To be fair, there are Euro-beer guys who also love and appreciate American craft beer but the only human category smaller is “Over-weight Mayalsian Dwarves in the NBA”) IPA freaks chronically and dismissively refer to beers they deem insufficiently hoppy as “flabby“. Stout geeks set up either traditional British Stouts or contemporary American-style, 30-weight mega-Stouts as their paradigm, hunker down, and snipe at the other side. Traditional whiskey lovers tend to diverge into multiple clans – Scotch, Bourbon, American, Canadian, Japanese, and the sub-headings of “rye” and “wheat” and “adjunct” (flavored with something) – and then lob grenades at each other. Wine weenies fall into two major groups – Old World vs. New World – and then into dozens of sub-groups: Rhone vs. Bordeaux vs. Burgundy vs. Italian vs. Spanish vs. French vs. Australian vs. California vs. Washington vs…..Exhausting.
Fortunately for these breweries, wineries, and distilleries, there are more than enough people around to allow some back-up for any preference and more than enough to gather a consumer base that will allow all but the most inept of them to stay in business.
But, all that said, and setting aside all my impassioned defense of these producers and their right to make what they want and let the market decide, one reader, just this past week, gave me a priceless perspective. JKtheIPA wrote (In an email; no way to shoehorn this into Twitter)…
“I get it that you don’t like to write negative things, which is frankly what makes your impaling of Budweiser so much fun, but I have to call BS on one thing: There are Deschutes and Boneyard and Selkirk and pFriem and the others that you write about but there are thousands you never even mention. Why?”
A moment of clarity..courtesy of one of my frighteningly intelligent readers. I owe ya a beer or glass of wine, JK; maybe a shot, if that’s your deal. It reads like a simple thing but it goes directly to the heart of this post.
I do, admittedly, write about beers, wines, whiskeys, and the people who make them mainly when they just blow me away with something. It can be one particular beer, their history, their charitable giving, their weird-ass personalities, or anything else of special merit. But a lot of times, even when I’m heaping praise a beer or three that I tasted from Quasimodo’s Brewing and Muffler Shop, I would never call that brewery “great”. They made a great beer – at least one, anyway – and that earns praise or should, if there is any justice.
But for me to call a winery great, that winery has to make their entire roster of wines to some standard of genuine excellence, every time, every wine, every vintage, for a while. Not just one year and one bottle. I’m happy to review and rave about that one exceptional wine. But you won’t read “great brewery/winery/distillery” anywhere in that review because “great”, again, is a real Thing and has those messy “parameters”. For me – and not speaking for any other reviewer of anything – this is what has to be there for me to use “great”:
- Across-the-board quality, balance, approachable flavor, and no off notes, in every beverage. Now, you’ll read that and say, correctly, “Well, any great brewery can make a mistake, now and then.” Sure…but you’ll never see or taste those because a HUGE part of “great” is Judgment; maybe THE largest part. I once opined that Deschutes never seems to make anything bad. The next day, one of the Deschutes brew crew emailed me and said, “Steve, much as your faith in us warms my heart, we do make bad shit occasionally. We just pour it down a drain and move on. Failure is part of learning and learning is the biggest part of excellence. And the rest of it is judgment. We ask, with every beer, ‘Would I drink this or share it with a friend?‘ If the honest answer is ‘No‘, some sewer microbes are going to party all night long. We have a standard and it’s inflexible: ‘Would I drink this?‘ That’s the ballgame. And we play by those rules.“
- The beers don’t have to remain strictly within anybody’s “style guidelines”, a phrase I cheerfully despise, but they do have to have some relationship to that style. Fort George – along with an increasing number of other breweries – is making white Stouts. Great! Go to it. But “stout” is also a Thing and that beer has to have some Stout character. Theirs does. It’s roasty and shows chocolate and coffee and molasses – and looks like a pale Amber ale. White Stout. Ta-da! That same statement applies to wines that claim to show their terroir – also a Thing, and it cannot just refer to some non-specific mineral character – and wines that claim to be Old World style or New World. Wineries that aspire to the very trendy and healthy moniker of “non-interventionist winemaking” had better not be sneaking adjuncts into their tanks and get caught at it or the Jig Is Some Kinda UP. Distilleries that call their whiskeys – as one prominent West Coast producer does – simply “Whiskey”, when that liquid contains copious sugar and additives and more properly qualifies as a liqueur – will receive the scorn that little turd of marketing deception earns them. And will never be mentioned here.
- For me, those producers also have to have the best interests of their consumers at heart. They can’t behave like assholes and adopt a massive ‘Tude towards their customers and an adversarial stance toward their own culture or they’re off my radar permanently. Examples: Wicked Weed, 10 Barrel, The Brewery Formerly Known as Ely**in, Golden Road (which was shit even before they greased up and bent over), Devil’s (lack of any detectable) Backbone, Four Peaks, Blue Point, Goose Island, Karbach, Breckenridge. All proven NOT to have the best interests of their customers at heart and all of whom stepped right into that adversarial relationship with their own culture and then offered canned excuses and suspiciously seamless claims that “nothing has changed!” and “we’re still the same people!” and – my favorite – “now, we can make better beer!“, and got all butt-hurt and wounded because people say they’re no longer craft breweries…which they are NOT. These fools: NOT “great” anymore, if they ever were, to begin with.
So, here is where I piss some people off:
By far, the largest sub-group of American Indie/craft breweries is the one for which I’ve borrowed a term from my pals Chris Carter and Doug Baldwin: “A-ight”. They’re a-ight; not bad, not even close to terrible, not a waste of time, not an insult to to either your palate or your culture, but certainly not “great”. These number in the multiple thousands and nearly all of these have a core of fans who will sit and tell you – with a straight face, zero knowledge of the rest of the American craft beer continuum, and believing it with all their hearts – that “Zygote Beer and Truck Wash is the best brewery in the world!” Are they entitled to their opinions? Of course. Are they right? Only for them and the brewery’s other devoted fans. For the rest of us, they’re talking out their asses.
Which is not to say that I’m right or the rest of us are right, either. But I’ve had brewers ask me what I think, honestly, of their beers – expecting the same sort of ass-kissing they get from their core customers, I guess – and then get insulted when I say that I think they’re on the right track but Not There yet or that they have some great beers but some that aren’t up to their standards, in my opinion. And their response is almost exactly the same, in 99% of all cases: (in a wounded or defiant tone) “Well, our customers seem to like them!” I shrug and say, “You asked me to be honest, right?” But what I’m thinking is the same, every time: “How many customers do you have? Are you constantly sold out of beers? Do you announce a release and 1,500 people show up? Are you seeing your name in beer magazines and beverage sites? Are you making a LOT of money?”
The VAST majority of American Indie/craft breweries are just good. There are degrees of that, of course: “pretty good“, “sorta good, sometimes“, “very good“, “exceptionally good“, “rarely good“…and so on. But they make beers that are mostly drinkable, offer good value for your money, and remain in the stylistic ballpark. Most wineries make wines that you can drink and enjoy, minus the odd clunker, and almost everybody makes good Chardonnay because you’d have to be asleep or hit yourself repeatedly with a hammer, right in the forehead, to screw up Chardonnay. Most distilleries make drinkable Vodka, many make appealing Gin, and most which have the common sense and integrity to actually wait for time and chemistry to transform those barrels of white grain alcohol into the magic of Whiskey will come out with something that deserves the name. The most common mistake I find in distilleries is when bean-counters get too heavily involved and try to rush their whiskeys to market before they’re anywhere near ready and wind up with something that is to “Whiskey” as chocolate milk is to Häagen-Dazs.
Out of that fat 85% which is not rave-worthy except with rare beers or one obsessive style fixation, how many will eventually achieve greatness? Probably about the same percentage as can reasonably be called great now. Maybe 8-9% of all those “A-ight” producers of beverages will ever gain the status of greatness that compels a near-universal recognition and translates into $$$ and job security. But to call the rest “sub-standard” is just flat wrong.
Those breweries, wineries, and makers of spirits ARE the standard.
They are the baseline, dominant level of competence and achievement and acceptance that dominates every business class. All ice cream makers are not Mora Iced Creamery or Salt & Straw or Liks, which hardly disrespects Häagen-Dazs. All car makers are not Lamborghini and Maserati, which doesn’t mean a nice Volvo or Toyota or Volkswagen is shit. All design houses are not Vera Wang and Givenchy and Georgio Armani, but wearing a nice pair of Wranglers or a Betsey Johnson outfit is still a great idea.
It neither is, nor is it meant as an insult, to call these beverage makers “good” – not that their fans would ever see it that way because not calling them “great” is always taken as an indictment of their personal tastes. And to those folks, I can only say that, while I understand your neurosis, that’s just the way it is.
One of the most common responses I get from readers is, “I notice you’ve never mentioned __________ in The Pour Fool. Most people think they’re pretty great, so why the disrespect?”
My reply is always the same. In fact, I have a form letter in my email drafts that I send back…over 400 times, now:
The fact that you have never read about _________ here should not be taken as a de facto admission that I think they’re bad. There are three things that will result in my not mentioning a producer: 1) Have never tasted their products, 2) DO think they’re under-performing, or 3) Have found something about the producer’s business ethics, personal conduct, treatment of their customers, or a sell-out to Anheuser Busch that compels me to pretend that they no longer exist. By far the smallest of those three categories is #3. That group includes all the AB sell-outs and FOUR independent breweries, out of the almost 8,000 in the US today. By far the largest category is #1. Add up all the American wineries, breweries, and distilleries in business today and you get well over 15,000 producers of alcoholic beverages and, while I am conscientious, I also have a liver and a life. I think many, many producers are falling short of greatness and it’s greatness that I promote, not the average and predictable. It’s going to be up to you to decide which of these categories ___________ falls into because I don’t write negative reviews of anything except Anheuser Busch and those who file frivolous copyright/trademark infringement suits, so I’m certainly not going to do that in a private email.
And this “disrespect” term that gets tossed so casually around? My not mentioning breweries I would otherwise have to say snotty things about IS respect. Disrespect would be unloading both barrels on some hard-working, heavily-invested beverage-maker who is just falling short of my personal standard. Would my dumping on ________ be better, if that’s really how I feel? Careful what you wish for, kiddo…
Steve Body, The Pour Fool”
Most American makers of beverages are GOOD. I’d put that percentage at maybe 70%. “Very Good” would be about 15%. There’s the 85% that is neither “great” nor “awful“. And my own regional cheerleading for the PNW has nothing to do with it. In my own hometown of Tacoma, there is one brewery I would characterize as “great“, two very close to that stature, and seven that are simply “good”. There is one brewery that I am forced to call “awful” and I’m praying they eventually turn it around but it’s been over five years, now, and I’m not hopeful. And that one “awful” has only one other companion in WA state, sixty miles away, to the north.
I suspect that ratio would apply to many cities, areas, and regions. I know of NO awful breweries in Oregon, none in Idaho, and none in Colorado, California, or Alaska. “Awful” is a condition that eventually forces places to close, except when the producer has some peripheral virtue – gorgeous location, fancy taproom, relentless advertising and marketing (as in the case of one of those distilleries) that sustains it, which most do, if they stay in business.
And “awful“, at least for me, is about as hard to achieve as “great“. You have to make beers or wines or whiskeys that have obvious and consistent flaws in flavor and texture and balance and especially purity: off-notes, excessive anything, serious imbalance, and NO idea of when your experimental ale is so experimental that nobody but you and your assistants can drink it. You have to have bad enough judgment to think that those things don’t matter… the type of bad judgment comes from the single dumbest thing a brewer, winemaker, or distiller can do: Not go out and taste what other makers in your market are doing and take a good, objective look at how yours measures up.
MOST American breweries are GOOD. I can confidently walk into all but two breweries in my Northwest region and know that I will find at least one nice beer to enjoy. In wine, that percentage is even higher: I can drop into all but ONE of the 1,200 wineries in WA and OR and figure to find a good wine. I can visit all but one distillery in Washington and find a fine bottle of something to buy and enjoy. But those who don short skirts and shake pom-poms for those producers demand that their tastes be enough to have that place universally considered “great“…
Sorry…Nice fantasy but…just not reality.