On March 21, 2015, I wrote a post for this new website in which I intended to heap praise on a brewery here on Tacoma, Washington, that was pioneering the making of sour and brett beers in a state which had, for its entire craft brewing history, been stuck hip-deep in the sloppy rut of one British-tradition ale after another. Washington, in the 2010s, was an endless and tedious reiteration of the weary IPA/Pale/Amber/Porter/Stout styles which made up – and still do – the vast majority of all craft beer produced in the United States. This all happened very organically, so it was neither contrariness nor snobbery that made craft brewing go that way. The United States was originally a British colony and even Thomas Jefferson, our first all-American homebrewer, made British ales because that’s what he knew. If we had been a colony of displaced Belgians, things would have been radically different but we’re predominantly the spawn of English escapees from the tyranny of King George, so we caught the Pale Ale disease and never found a cure, at least in our ales, which were very few and far between. Our all-encompassing national addiction, of course, has been to wimpy, Americanized versions of slight, inoffensive Euro Lagers, in the heinous forms of Budweiser and Miller and Coors and Pabst and ________, proving, generation after generation what Adolphus Busch said when he dumbed down Czech Pilsner recipes to make the beers cheaper and faster: “This is good enough for Americans. They don’t know beer, anyway.”
So, having this state’s first brewery that kicked the living hell out of our stylistic bag based in staid, old, blue-collar Tacoma was a BIG damned deal, and I noted it by making a few pointed observations about the city – a very few; exactly 219 words out of an essay that ran to 2,179 words – and the Earth, at least this part of it, tilted off its axis.
I lived in Bellevue, then, a close-in suburb of Seattle. Tacoma was where we owned a rental house, 45 miles down I-5 and what seemed to be three decades back. Seattle has remade itself in an image that screams progress and a yearning for the future, razing entire hills in an effort to shove itself into tomorrow, while Tacoma worked, slowly and somewhat wearily, at preserving its history and culture. At the time I wrote the piece, I already knew I was moving to Tacoma and was, as I remember it, dealing with the idea by forcing myself into brutal, unvarnished honesty about our new home town. Those 219 words set off a minor avalanche of indignation that went on for several weeks and which is still simmering today, after I’ve been a Tacoma resident, here in 2022, for almost six years.
I’m writing this now as a cautionary tale and a metaphor. My caution is that, if you’re a fan of craft beer or boutique wineries or artisan distilleries, you may be facing a similar move to a place where these are scarce or non-existent or have a simmering dissatisfaction about your own hometown’s lack of a beverage scene. It’s a handy metaphor because it proves out two fine, old adages: “Necessity Is The Mother of Invention” and “It’s Never Too Late”.
Cities like Tacoma – and Roanoke and Greensboro and many other cities of that approximate size – CAN sustain craft breweries. How do I know this? Beer Sells EVERYWHERE. Maybe in the heart of Napa that is slightly different but all us Americans like us some beers. Yeah, people continue to say that beer sales are declining and that young people are picking up on wine more than beer and that is probably true. But even here, in the midst of a global pandemic, new breweries are opening and the ones that folded from Covid ramifications are a miraculously small number. Brewing is still, once start-up costs are retired, a nicely profitable business…
…or is it?
Quick answer: YES, it CAN be.
A TON of folks have bemoaned the continuing costs of running breweries, conveniently side-stepping the fact that the ONGOING costs of ANY business are considerable and demand a certain level of success to even get into black ink. And how does one find that inkwell? BY MAKING GOOD BEER, and it’s flatly astounding to me how many fledgling brewery owners don’t get that until sometimes years down the road, when someone, at the right moment, suggests that maybe the beer kinda, y’know, sucks. Then, MAYBE, they start paying attention and fix it and – lo and behold! – they start to do better.
A brewery here in Western Washington contacted me, about eight years ago, privately, by email, and the owner said, “I don’t get it. Our pub does really well and people like the beers but we just don’t generate any buzz. Nobody mentions us in the beer forums or in the newspapers. We make good money but we just cannot take that next step. What do you think?“
As it happened, this was a brewery I knew very well and had spent some time in that pub. But his problem was obvious.
“You’re not giving people any reason to mention you,” I wrote back, “You make your core beers and they’re okay. Not a thing wrong with ’em. And the pub serves really good food and has a great atmosphere. But none of that is exciting. You never do ANYTHING different. Read those beer sites and the local newspapers. What do they recognize about those breweries? Simple; this one makes a big new Stout, another does barrel-aged ales, another one, over there, is specializing in lagers. So, do that: make something different. Blitz social media when you release it. Send samples to beer writers. Get in the game because the Game is how buzz happens.“
He did…and they started to get noticed. Duh. But WHY did it take contacting a cranky old non-brewery owner to realize that?
Here’s the Cautionary Tale in all this: If you’re going to run a business – of any type – you are a part of a culture of similar businesses. Put simply, you have competitors and you will be measured against them and either come off well or be found wanting. NOBODY exists in a vacuum and that is maybe Fail #1 that I have seen in business closures. It’s HARD to start a business. If it’s not hard, you’re doing it wrong. It takes massive allotment of your time and energy and it is dead-easy to develop myopia about it, that ultra-narrow focus that has you concentrating so hard and so many exhausting hours that you never seem to find the time to go out, visit other businesses like yours, and see how you measure up. Worse than that, many owners lack any ability to try other’s products and objectively ask, “Is this better than what I do?“
A winery up here in Woodinville, Washington, made a Merlot, one vintage, that the owner really liked but they couldn’t sell. She came into my old wine shop and plunked down a bottle and said, “Would you taste this?”
I did. She watched me as though I might suddenly glow with a heavenly light and Reveal All Secrets.
“Okay, now, WHY can I not sell that?“
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
“Aha,” I nodded and went over to my South America section. I grabbed a bottle of Miguel Torres Santa Digna Chilean Merlot and opened it.
“Taste this,” I said, pouring her a tiny sample.
“It’s very good,” she said evenly, “But, of course that and mine are not the same product.“
“See?” I replied, “That’s your problem. Is this Merlot as good as yours?“
“You mean in terms of flavor?” she asked, puzzled.
“Is there another standard I’m not aware of?” I replied, “Flavor, texture, finish, like that?“
“Well,” she sighed, “Yes, I guess…in those terms.“
“Then what do you mean by ‘not the same product’? They both say Merlot on the label.“
“Well, I mean…uh, it’s not a Washington wine! It’s Chilean,” she sputtered, “Aren’t most of your customers looking for Washington wines?“
“Do you have a preconceived notion about that or is it a real question?” I shrugged, “Because the answer is no, most of my customers come here looking for the best use of their dollars. They want appealing flavors at a good price.“
“So, what?” she said, “Pedigree means nothing?“
“Pedigree and place of origin are not the same thing. Torres Chile has been in business for forty-two years. The estate has been producing wine grape for 112 years. You’ve been in business for six.“
“No, Washington pedigree,” she grumbled, “This is our wine. Theirs is…not.“
“You’re just not getting this,” I sighed, “If someone walks into my shop and asks for a good Merlot and I show them this one and yours, the first thing they’re going to ask is, ‘Which is better?’ and if they don’t name a price, I have to say the Torres. But, tell ya what, if they even say they’ll pay more than $38, I’m still selling them the Torres.“
“But…WHY?” she wailed.
“Because it’s the better wine,” I replied, “Yours has a high level of volatile acids and a slight metallic taste on the finish. It’s not awful but it is really only on my shelf because I try to support local wineries.“
“It doesn’t sound like it!” she snapped.
“Hey,‘ I shot back, “I bought and paid for six bottles of this. And if someone comes in looking for it, I will never say a bad word. But your reputation is contained in your bottle. Mine is made or lost by what I recommend and the Miguel Torres is better than yours…AND…it costs $28 less.“
“That wine is ten dollars?” she asked, shocked.
“Jesus…” she stammered, “I…I can’t make a wine for that.“
“And there is the reason you can’t sell it. My best advice: make less and sell it only in your tasting room, where there are no other Merlots.“
“We don’t have a tasting room,” she said sadly.
“Open one,” I answered, “Quickly.”
Go out in your car and get hopelessly lost and see what good a road map does ya…
You have to know where you are. And you only do that by checking out what’s around you.
Don’t imagine that because your home town has few or no breweries that it will always be thus. Fast forward to today and Tacoma has lost two breweries, one to a landlord refusing to renew a lease and one to Covid. One stopped brewing but still operates two pubs. One stopped brewing but opened a restaurant/cafe. One of the area’s largest and most successful, 7 Seas, moved its main facility and brewery operations to Tacoma from nearby Gig Harbor. One expanded the opposite way: Gig Harbor Brewing, a real Stout-capable small brewery, opened a taproom in Gig Harbor. Why they originated in Tacoma and adopted the name Gig Harbor…well, only they know. E9 Brewing, the sour beer specialist, has opened a new brewing facility and taphouse and has become nationally prominent for sour/wild/brett beers and their barrel-aged program. (Happily, this is the closest brewery to my house, a five minute drive.) Sluggo Brewing moved. Mother Fern, Sig, and Seattle’s Odin opened and Wingman, an occasionally brilliant small producer, is the one that transitioned to restaurant work, with a vague plan to reopen “eventually”.
ALL of this is NORMAL. None of it is “The Sky Is Falling!” kind of dynamic. Even without Covid, these changes were going to come about, as the entire culture of craft brewing normalizes and joins the mainstream of American commerce. The metaphor is emblematic of Life Itself; of changes being a part of human existence. God, I am SO freakin’ tired of the collective freak-outs that send shock waves through the craft/indie culture when any of these absolutely predictable changes come to fruition. Take a look at your own life, at all the twists and turns and retrenchments that you’ve endured personally and you’re going to find that you are a microcosm of your human milieu. YES, for the love of God, I DO, absolutely, have my own freak-outs when breweries sell out but only then if they’ve sold out to Anheuser Busch, the sworn enemy of independent brewing and a company working daily to undo the indie culture and occasionally, on a case by case basis, I target some other corporate buyer for abuse. But as when Duvel buys Boulevard or Firestone Walker, I actually celebrate because Duvel is a GREAT brewery and great corporate citizen and has improved their acquired properties.
The OTHER cautionary tale is the message that independent ownership of breweries…and wineries and distilleries and Kombucha makers and cideries is NOT, no matter what you may read in the pages of some beer critics, the path to failure. It is not, as is so often asserted, a passé idea, an outmoded trope. Your success or failure will depend on the aforementioned quality of your products and, just as critically, your expectations for what you want to create. The idea that independent brewing is outmoded is based on a common misconception: that all brewery owners’ ultimate and inflexible goal is unlimited growth and either eventual sale to a larger corporate entity or eventually going public and cashing in on your IPO.
These are such outdated and presumptive notions that I can hardly even take them seriously. It shows me mostly that folks who posit these scenarios never studied economics and don’t get out and talk with brewers and winemakers enough. MOST with whom I have spoken DON’T want to eventually sell out and up. They want to be profitable, grow the business, and eventually either pass it along to their own family or sell to their employees. But the doomsayers scoff at that, To them, the only goal is becoming the next Boston Beer Company or Yeungling or Sierra Nevada…or to sell to Anheuser Busch or Diageo or some other global behemoth. In short, they have swallowed the shallowest and most crass American Dream and are handing that off to a whole new generation.
DON’T believe it.
Those who screech about “getting back to Normal” in the wake of the worst global crisis of our lifetimes are delusional. We are NEVER going to “go back” to what we have all known as “normal”. We will have to create a NEW normal and anyone in your own hometown, region or state with a dream of opening a brewery deserves your serious consideration and your help, if they have a solid plan. This future is something not that we have to create, it is something we get to create. It is a wonderful, limitless challenge and can be an enormous source of fun and satisfaction and even a good living, IF we have the guts and don’t let the knee-jerk naysayers drag us into their weeds.
Go BUILD SOMETHING. Start a business. Hell, start a BREWERY. You’ll have help, from unexpected corners. You’ll have support. You’ll have beer. This sounds good to you?
DO IT. It is neither impossible nor foolish. It is simply American commerce and we need only be scared of what we DON’T know.