Could the Next Stone Brewing Already be in NC?

Bring Stone Brewing to Charlotte

© Shared via Charlotte Chamber skyline photo contest.

A couple months ago, Stone Brewing announced plans to build a second brewery east of the Mississippi. Since then, many have submitted proposals trying to convince the nation’s tenth-largest brewery to build in their city (I wrote about the Charlotte Chamber’s proposal last month). In this guest post, Ryan Self suggests that a change in legislation could allow North Carolina’s breweries to grow in the manner Stone has. 

The possibility of Stone Brewing Co. choosing Charlotte out of all the cities vying to be the home of the venerable company’s new East Coast distribution hub has area beer lovers, media and even elected officials atwitter about the possibility of a nationally known brand setting up in our little burg.

The only problem is, among all the excitement for Stone most are asking the wrong questions and drawing the wrong conclusions. First things first: In a vacuum, of course I want Stone in Charlotte. It’d be a job creator, a local landmark and act as an immediate step to putting Charlotte on the national craft beer map. As someone who works for a local brewery, my resistance to this excitement has been met with claims of isolationism and fear of competition.

It’s not that simple. Competition on a level playing field encourages all players to raise their game – or fear getting left behind. It has been a wonderful thing for the Charlotte beer scene. Every brewery that’s opened in the last four years has quickly found a market, while the existing craft breweries continued to grow as fast as their equipment would let them. The creation of a viable local beer scene has truly been the rising tide that aids all ships, and we are a better scene for it.

But there’s an anchor on each of those ships, and it is the difficult conditions we face in the state and in Charlotte for small breweries to grow, thrive and yes, maybe become the next Stone. We have faced difficult local zoning policies that treat taprooms and all-night dance clubs as the same entity, and craft breweries the same as industrial manufacturing plants. We grow knowing state laws limit our ability to self distribute at 25,000 barrels produced in a year – at that success level, we must turn over control of our business and a significant share of our earnings to a distributor, and we have no choice in the matter. And we face one of the five highest state excise taxes on beer produced; almost 62 cents for every gallon we make. By comparison, Stone’s home state of California charges just 20 cents. Colorado, whose New Belgium Brewing recently began construction on its own second facility, charges just eight cents per gallon.

Stone and New Belgium got where they are by making great beer, at a time when opening a craft brewery was a much riskier proposal. No one denies they have earned their success and acclaim. But they also enjoyed states with laws and taxes that are incredibly conducive to growing a burgeoning business. If North Carolina excise taxes were at the level Stone pays, state breweries could immediately create more local jobs, and buy more equipment to meet demand. (It can be a hard thing to make a case for business tax breaks in this era of Occupy Wall Street, but the fact is no North Carolina brewery would be using this money to add a jacuzzi to the beach house – at the size we all are, this money would immediately be reinvested in the company and the creation of local jobs). Breweries would have the opportunity to grow across the board, and maybe someday we’d have another state begging a successful North Carolina brewery to build their second facility therein.

Right now, the same elected leaders extolling the job creation of a Stone or New Belgium facility (and readying multi-million-dollar concession offers if those companies do come) are ignoring the financial and regulatory hurdles it takes to grow a thriving brewery in North Carolina, and yet because of dedicated local craft beer lovers a scene is emerging despite these challenges.

Those who love local beer are not powerless to affect this change. Write your local and state legislators, tell them you expect your local breweries to have a business environment that at least matches states with modern success stories. Bring Stone to Charlotte sounds just fine to me. Bring the Next Stone to Charlotte sounds even better.

Hype, Backlash, and Hopslam

Hype, Backlash and Hopslam

I don’t want to be a curmudgeon.

Really I don’t.

But I recently realized I was being just that, through an interaction with Nick McCormac aka Drink Blog Repeat, a favorite beer blogger of mine (sorry Daniel…second favorite). Nick was tweeting about Hopslam arriving at various spots in his area, with a “keep calm” qualifier befitting the breathless hype that too often accompanies this and other “whale” beers. I replied, “I’m quite calm,” and received the following back:

This might seem like the typical pithy back and forth the Internt is so famous for, except that it came from someone I read, respect and consider a friend. So it got me thinking. What is the appropriate response to Hopslam (and KBS, and Cold Mountain, and whatever absolutelyinsaneohmygodgetitnow beer is coming down the pipe next)? There seem to be three schools of thought:

1. Go nuts, buy all you can.

2. Casual interest. Buy it if you see it, don’t take to social media searching for it.

3. Take an antagonistic view of the hype, become esentially anti-Hopslam and holier-than-thou.

I’ve been doing number three, which means I’ve been doing it all wrong. Hopslam (nor any other rare beer de jeur) is not the sickness in our beer scene, it is merely a symptom. We have become a beer scene that talks openly about a return to craft beer enjoyment over collecting, fundamentally solid beers over hype, and local artisanal brewing over jumping from one new barrel aged imperial boozebomb to the next. We talk a good game, but our actions (and our tweets) say differently. I don’t know one beer blogger who doesn’t agree with the sentiment that a hype driven beer scene is unsustainable, and yet when the newest beer drops, most immediately jump to join the hype train. Maybe beer writers are just responding to public demand, what the people want to read. But how much of public demand is established and driven by what’s being pushed out there, and what’s being sold as “Get it now, rush rush it’s the best ever and it’ll be gone soon!” It’s a vicious cycle. We’re telling newcomers to the craft beer scene that craft means only extreme, high alcohol, and rare; creating a barrier to entry and the appearance that buzz rules over taste.

That being said, it’s even worse to be an insufferable prick about it, telling anyone who will listen how you’ve already had it, it’s no big deal, I’m evolved and I’ve moved on to this other beer you newbies aren’t even aware of. Hipsters are annoying, whether in music, fashion or craft beer. The people who collect beers don’t love beer, they just love being the smartest guy in the room. I think the tweet above was subtly calling me out for doing so, and he was right. It’s easy to get so weary of the hype train that one becomes more insufferable than any Hopslam hoarder, and in the same boat as the craft beer elitist looking down their nose at the Sam Adams or Yuengling drinker.

We’re supposed to be an inclusive, welcoming scene, fighting the fight together for quality over inferior ingredients and monolithic advertising agencies that happen to make beer. So, in that spirit, allow me to spell out the case against the white whale of the week in a more nuanced way.

Craft beer is not just a product, or a label, or a personal identifier. Reduced to its core elements, beer is beer. What makes craft exceptional are the people behind it. The brewer hand crafting a recipe he developed with the greatest of care, the beer shop taking great pains to store their stock appropriately, the beer bar serving beer at correct temperatures, in proper glassware, at its freshest; because all know the end use customer cares. Buying a beer because it’s the rarest is essentially succumbing to the same marketing tactics of buying a beer because it’s the coldest can or pours fastest. We’re ignoring the steak and buying the sizzle, which demeans the brewing process and puts our local bottle shops in a terrible spot: sell the beer first come first serve, or hold it back for regulars and be forced to lie to customers or face the Wrath of the Message Board. I’ve had many chats with Mike Brawley of Brawley’s Beverage, a beloved local institution, about handling distribution of rare release beers. His policy is to save them for his regulars, rewarding their loyalty with access to the rarest releases. However, he also refuses to lie to his customers. He won’t tell a first time shopper looking for Hopslam he doesn’t have it; he’ll tell them he has it but it is reserved for his regulars. Most folks don’t take kindly to this news (and have no compunction about saying so publicly), but what is his alternative? Tell a regular, “Sorry, I know you buy all your beer here, but I sold my Hopslam to a guy I’ve never seen before who doesn’t support my shop the other 51 weeks a year?” It’s a no-win situation that we help to create by telling folks who are still new in their craft beer journey, “Forget everything else, THIS is the beer you want.”

We’re not going to create the craft beer scene we want by ignoring tried and trusted favorites over the rare beer of the week, and feeding the hype cycle. We’re also not going to get there by acting elitist, as if we’re above anyone who is still looking for these beers. That’s my mistake, and on Hopslam release day, I’m going to atone for it by staying quiet and visiting my favorite local bottle shop to buy a sixer…of Bell’s Two Hearted, or Dale’s Pale Ale, or Noda’s Hop Drop and Roll; my hoppy beers that never disappoint. They won’t trade for much on BeerAdvocate or sell on eBay, but they’ll drink damn fine at half the price.

Do’s & Don’ts for a Great Charlotte Oktoberfest

Ryan Self has attended his share of beer festivals, on both sides of the taps. With Charlotte Oktoberfest quickly approaching, he dropped by to share his “do’s and don’ts” to get the most out of the festival. (This post was written prior to the 2012 festival, but the advice is timeless.)

Once again, Charlotte Oktoberfest is just around the corner. The organizers of this fest have consistently made this event one of the best in the region, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have the great time you should. When faced with a seemingly endless array of craft beer options, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. That’s why I’m here with a beer festival veteran’s do’s and don’ts of a successful Oktoberfest experience.

  • Do spring for the VIP tickets. Unfortunately VIP tickets are already sold out this year, but make it a point to spring for them next year. Depending on the festival, these can add significantly to the price, but if you truly want a beer education and not just a healthy buzz, it’s absolutely worth it. During this first hour, crowds are 1/10 of the size, meaning you’ll get your money’s worth spending your time sampling beer instead of standing in line. Even more valuable is the fact that the brewers can relax and talk beer instead of having to rush everyone to serve the backed-up line. If you want to try a beer, find out how it was made and discuss tasting notes with an expert, the VIP ticket suddenly becomes a reasonably priced experience.
  • Don’t waste your time at stands that clearly hired a couple of skinny girls to pour. If a brewery doesn’t care enough to proudly present its beer, why should you care enough to drink it? Here’s an insider’s tip: If a festival is important to a brewery, and the team knows they are bringing some brand new and/or rare beers to serve, it will send educated staff to pour and discuss. If a brewery is sending it’s same old core lineup because they felt like they “had to” attend the festival, they’ll let anyone staff the table. You’re going to get served a beer you can get anywhere, by someone who has no interest.Your time is too valuable for that.
  • Do take notes on beers you love, or breweries that impress across the board. You might try six breweries from Asheville; don’t you want to remember which ones you loved so next time you’re in town you can head right to those breweries? This will also prove useful next time you’re at the bar. Imagine being at Revolution, seeing a brewery’s new IPA and being able to recall “I loved their pale ale at Oktoberfest, I’ll try this.”
  • That being said, don’t be a slave to Untappd (cut to my friends laughing, as I am famous for this). The Untappd app and Web site have made it easier than ever to quickly track what you’ve had and if you liked them. However, the badge and collector aspects of the site make it easy to spend the entire festival with your head buried in your phone. Remember – you probably didn’t come here alone, and there’s a skilled brewery employee right in front of you. Perhaps it would enhance the experience of the day to talk to them once in a while?
  • Don’t feel the need to try everything, especially beers you’ve had many times before. Love Brewery X’s pale ale? Sure, have some as a palate cleanser between new brews. But if you know Brewery Y’s oatmeal stout is consistently mediocre, don’t get trapped in the need to have a sample based on the fallacy that you waited in line for 20 minutes and you’re going to have everything they’re offering. However…
  • Do get out of your comfort zone. You paid for an all-you-can-drink ticket, so if you’ve never enjoyed sours, now is the time to try them again. One sample costs the same as 10, so don’t be afraid to go back to the well. Worst case scenario ? You take some sips and dump, and you feel that much more secure that certain styles just aren’t for you. No one will be able to say you didn’t give them a fair shake. Best case? You open a whole new world when you discover that one beer that is a gateway to you loving that style.

We’d love to hear even more from beer festival regulars in the comments section!

Building a More Mature Charlotte Beer Scene

I have a challenge for every craft beer bar in Charlotte for 2013: Come up with four great beer events.

What’s that you say? “Easy, we did 15 to 20 just this year!” Well, then let me clarify – come up with only four great beer events. Events so grand in scale and variety that every craft beer aficionado in town can’t help but say “I’m going to do all I can to make sure I attend that event.” More importantly, the goal is to correct what is an increasing issue in the still maturing Charlotte beer scene: a proclivity to breathlessly hype every minor tasting, tapping and beer pairing as a major beer event.

Now, I’ve been called a curmudgeon before (on this very site, no less!) and I understand the inclination to believe that more beer events is always better for our scene. I would argue that we are instead creating a glut of minor events that make none seem terribly special and burn out potential attendees who quickly give up hope of ever hitting them all.

This idea started in a a recent discussion I had with some fellow Charlotte beer scene enthusiasts. “When was the last time you went to a craft beer event and saw several people you knew?,” we lamented. “It used to be, whatever the big event of the week was, 90% of the local scene was there.” We agreed that too many choices eventually created two issues. One, there’s no longer an obvious event of the week or month where local beer enthusiasts can be counted on to meet and mingle; and two, events increasingly go bust as their simply aren’t enough beer fans to go around and support upwards of six craft beer events per night. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a bar for a special tasting only to realize it’s you, the brand rep and the bartender standing around. Or the “tap takeover,” which is just four taps out of 50 represented by a brand’s core beers. Yawn. Compare that to an event like Mike Brawley’s annual Black and Brew, featuring a host of one-off beers and great music in one spot. Mike does one event a year and yet no one is questioning his place in the Charlotte beer hierarchy, so why are we otherwise stuck with endless “special” events?

I believe the issue is an explosion of new brewers and beer bars in Charlotte. Don’t get me wrong – this is unequivocally good news. We are fortunate to be at the forefront of a burgeoning craft beer movement that is redefining what a beer scene can be in the Southeast. However, while we are rightfully excited about these developments, frantically burning ourselves out on an endless stream of minor events creates the feeling that craft beer is merely the latest trend, not the new reality. Here’s a nutty idea, bars: Got a new draft? Just tap it. It’s not an event. If you’re a popular spot, the beer geeks will find you, really. We talk.

Wile we’re on the topic, let’s take a look at the events that seem to consistently underwhelm. The ideas that have had their day, the ones that never did, and the ones that never should. I could happily go all of 2013 without hearing about a:

  • Tap takeover,” that’s really just a brewery feature night. Remember when Stone did the 60-tap takeover at Duckworths, changing literally every tap with Stone beers including several never-before-seen kegs? Given the rarities involved, and the brash nature of Stone’s advertising history, the term made sense – it really felt as if Greg Koch himself had kicked in the doors and announced “Empty our cellars, we’re taking over these taps.” It was a well attended and well executed event, and the bar, brewer and distributor deserve kudos. But it opened a door to some seriously weak pretenders. Suddenly, having four (or even three!) Brewery X taps out of your 40 taps was a breathlessly hyped “Tap takeover!” Check the phrasing, people. A brewery rep showing up to sample and discuss a range of their styles is a nice little bonus for your craft customers, not an event to be shouted to the heavens. And the more of these we see, the more it cheapens the next time a real “tap takeover” happens.
  • The “free beer tasting!” that’s just samples of a handful of readily available beers. Got something rare or new that’s being introduced to the market? Sure, let your customers know that they’ll be able to try a new beer or brand. That’s exciting stuff, right? Here’s the opposite: “Free ________ Brewery tasting!” Ahem, those beers have been available for some time; if I was interested I would have sampled them by now. And by the way, every decent craft beer bar in town will already offer you a small taste if you ask, “Hey, how’s that beer? I was considering a pint.” If the brewery rep wants to give out some free samples, that’s a smart way on their part to garner interest and introduce new folks to the product. It’s not a massive craft beer event.
  • The beer dinner. Including this on the list is the biggest bummer of all, because I have been to several fantastic, innovative beer dinners that offered attendees great taste and value. However, the reality is two things are happening. One, it’s become such a trendy event that every bar in town is contemplating doing one. I swear we’re not that far from “IPA paired with jalapeno cheese poppers.” Two, prices are rising faster than demand, and we are seeing events sputter to draw even a handful of attendees. I’ve talked to a number of brewery reps about recent beer dinners, and consistently heard some version of, “Yeah, it was a bit of bust.” Beer is a phenomenal pairing with food – easily as variable and nuanced as wine – and it is inspiring to watch talented chefs play with the subtleties of beer to create a complementary menu. But several beer dinners a month simply taps out the pool of potentially interested folks, so these events are increasingly underattended. (And bar owners: when your marketing person tells you, “EVERYONE is doing beer dinners!” ask yourself if you really want to follow that path or come up with an innovative new idea. For example, I went to a beer dinner recently where the event was four courses, one beer from four Charlotte breweries. This brought the brewery representatives together in one spot to chat with the guests and gave the chef a far greater range of beers to pair, and the event was a success).
  • CASK! If the beer dinner was the event I hated to include, this is one where I’m eagerly rubbing my hands together in glee. Say it with me folks: 1. not every beer belongs in a cask. 2. Even if does, cask does not automatically make a beer better. 3. It’s cask, not CASK!!! Quality beer bars occasionally or even regularly offer a cask option to augment their lineup. It’s not a stop-the-presses, all-caps announcement if you happen to have one coming in, and frankly, it might not be any good.

Sadly I was forced to miss the Great America Beer Festival this year (well happily, due to my first child arriving), but I’ve been paying close attention to what attendees say about Denver, a mature, craft-beer-centric city. The overwhelming feedback is not that bars all had the craziest, rarest beers. Instead, people tell me they noticed that every bar was all craft with a huge focus on the local offerings. Forget one rotating local tap; bars featured a range of beers from all the respected state brewers. And patrons, with all beer bars offering quality lineups, were left to choose their destination based on proximity, ambiance, service and food. Bars don’t have to constantly raise the bar with hyped events and rarer beers.

I think that’s a sound message to our local beer bars and restaurants, which are thankfully already strong and growing in number. You don’t have to impress me, the craft beer geek – you already have with your outstanding craft selection and support of local artisan brewers. If you see me brightening your doorstep, it’s not because you got the only dry-hopped, blackberry-infused, barrel-aged cask in the state, it’s because you augment your craft offerings with quality food, service and ambiance. As our still-developing craft scene matures, I suspect that’ll be more than enough.

The Argument Against IPA Day

Anti IPA DayAs I mentioned in a recent post on this year’s IPA Day, not everyone is excited for a made-up holiday celebrating one of the most popular styles in craft beer today. In the post below, Ryan Self explains why he’s against IPA Day and other “abritrary holidays.” – Daniel

At the risk of being labeled the local beer scene curmudgeon, I have to say I have greeted the latest beer “tradition,” IPA Day, with a yawn and an eye roll. I don’t oppose any reason for people to get excited about drinking craft beer, but I fear events like this may have the opposite effect.

A little background: I work in the beer business, and have worked at about every level. I have been enjoying craft beers since my days of being surrounded by Bud Ice-swilling buddies in college, and ever since then have been known as “the beer guy” among my friends. It was just considered the thing I was into, no different than the guy who was an avid mountain biker or tai chi practitioner (well, perhaps a bit different in subsequent body type). But craft beer shouldn’t be a trend, or a niche interest. Craft beer is only in very small part about trying the newest, most extreme style or flavor. It is much more about choosing quality ingredients, and a product made with care every time. I don’t occasionally drink craft beer, I do it every time. If craft isn’t available, chances are I’m not at that restaurant or pub, and if I somehow ended up there, I won’t order a flavorless beer. I simply won’t waste the calories or money on such a subpar product. Anytime we make a novelty of craft beer, whether it’s IPA Day or that awful voodoo doughnut maple beer, we subtly creep closer to the scourge of any hobby: fatigue.

I’ve already seen it in myself and in friends. When I started in craft, I was constantly trying the next new beer, the next hoppier beer or crazy concoction. “New” was substituted for “good.” I would say I had an interest in craft beer, but it wasn’t a lifestyle. Over the years I burned out on trading for that next brewery-only release, or caring that a brewery was claiming to have released a 120-IBU beer. It just didn’t sound appetizing. I began to find great joy in a well crafted, balanced representation of the style. Phenomenal beers like Great Lakes Porter, Dale’s Pale Ale, Bell’s Two Hearted and yes, Olde Mecklenburg Copper became staples of my beer fridge, and the outlier new styles became novelties at tastings. As a result, I learned to better appreciate both.

When craft beer becomes a task or something that needs to be done, whether it’s eschewing a beer you know you love to try the new thing on tap, or drinking an IPA even though that Porter sounds great because it’s IPA Day, it becomes a job. It becomes something one is constantly having to think about, rather than a lifestyle choice to always demand quality and flavor. In my opinion, it becomes tiresome, and it adds a cheap novelty factor.

On August 2, I may well be drinking an IPA or two at one of our city’s many fantastic beer spots. But it won’t be to satisfy some arbitrary holiday, it will be because, like so many times before, I scanned the taps and a particular IPA caught my eye and just sounded delicious. I’ve been choosing beers that way for years now and it has yet to steer me wrong.