Monday, September 20, 2010

Beer distribution, a final thought from St. Cloud

Well folks, here's my final post from St. Cloud, MN. On Thursday my wife and I will be moving to Mason City, IA. Once there I hope to keep going with the blog on a more regular basis and continue to try and introduce more food and non-beer beverage posts. But first I want to get my head and hands around what's available in IA, which got me thinking about distribution of beer. So here's one last post about beer. I'll have something in a few weeks about where you can find me.

Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada are the two largest craft brewers in the country, and the only two craft brewers with 100% U.S. distribution. New Belgium and Spoeztl are next in size, both of whom have large distribution that are in no way "regional". There are a good number of regional or semi-regional brews up high on the list, companies with 8-12 state distributions, but New Glarus (#22 craft, #32 overall) is the only small footprint beer that gets anywhere near the top.

So my question is, if a brewer wants to be truly widely recognized and considered a big player in beer, do they (or will they soon) have to be a nearly nationally available brand? I mean of course there will always be room for regionals, there are beers that will only do good in a certain region and brewers who just don't want to spread themselves out that much. But are we getting to a point where brewers who want to go big will have to cover everywhere? How long before not just the top 2, but the top 10 or 15 brewers will have 100% national coverage? Do people think that's a good thing? A bad thing? Nothing?

And in addition to that, what will that mean for beer selection at non-beer bars? Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada are pretty easy to come across, even in more rural areas, will we eventually stumble across Deschutes, Bells or Stone in the same way?

Would that allow (or could it be pushed by) a company dedicated to transporting beer a long way? Essentially work the same system Budweiser works, moving large volumes long distances to reduce unit costs, a fact that some brewers (read Craft Brewers Alliance) have taken advantage of to get their beer out there (CBA is #8 overall brewery). Could someone start a beer trucking service specifically to contract distribute craft beers?

Friday, September 3, 2010

The growth of craft beer and Rural Markets, a "Tipping Point" response

As many of you know, recently did a series of stories on the growth of Craft Beer and the trends therein. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Great pieces. One of the larger issues brought up in this argument is can Craft Beer keep up the ridiculous growth pace of 10% a year? Will people grow tired of it? Will Bud/Miller/Coors push back and "make a stand"?

I'm guessing, if anything, it will take a mix of those two events, and pushing back will involve introducing/buying up more "craft" brands like Blue Moon and Leinenkugel's. But, I still think there is hope, at least for a while, to continue growth. A sort of afterburner that can push Craft Beers a little harder now that they've mostly picked all of the low hanging fruit of trendy urban spots and affluent suburbs.

If you haven't figured out where I'm going with this, let me introduce one more peice of information, about the concentration of the population in the United States. The following "chart" shows what percentage of Americans live in Urban Areas of varying sizes, with the cumulative percentage in parenthesis:

Urban Areas over 200,000 : 58.274%
Urban Areas 50,000 to 199,999: 10.372% (68.619%)
Urban Clusters 5,000 to 49,999: 8.918% (77.537%)
Urban Clusters 2,500 to 4,999: 1.654% (79.191%)

Basically, 20% of people live in truly rural America, and there are a lot of people who live outside of metro areas at all. However, beyond a few local/regional crafts and the biggest craft brewers (Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada), the lot of which aren't even a given in some places, Craft Beer and Craft Beer Culture is absent from the stores of 20%-25% of the population. That is a lot of room for growth. And you can add to that, not only are those people not drinking Craft Beer on the farm, but those are the people migrating to the cities and taking their love of Bud with them.

I'm not saying that every liquor store in Cherry Nebraska or Bluefield, WV needs to have 700 different craft beer labels. But with a little effort they could have 50 or 100, far more than they have now.

And I know, some of you will say that would be expensive and inefficient. To take those in reverse order, I can tell you it's not inefficient to enter a market until the market is saturated, and rural America is no saturated with craft beer. This is especially true when most beer is distributed from at least a minor metro area, and adding that distributor or telling them to push more in the rural areas is really no new cost to the brewery.

As for being expensive to actually have to push your product or send out a sales rep, that's what we call in Economics diminishing marginal returns to cost. It was easy for word of mouth to spread the news about your brews in Chicago and Boston, pretty much free advertising. That can't and won't last forever, and the last 10 barrels are going to be a lot harder sell than the first 10 were.

So, in conclusion, I'm not saying small town America is where the next 10% share of the beer market is going to come from for Craft. But I do think it's foolish to think that it shouldn't be a bigger part of it than it has been.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oh, Urbanites and Local Food, how fun!

I am not a country boy, or a farm boy or anything like that, and I don't pretend to be. I grew up in Chicago (albeit nearly suburban, but my address was Chicago!), took the train, the bus. I didn't get my drivers license until I was 19. I ate at many different restaurants of varying quality and ethnic origin. And then I went to college in rural Minnesota, got into local foods, married a farm girl, and live in a town of 65,000, for now.

I still read the Chicago Tribune, and occasionally it has articles on local foods that interest me, like this one:,0,3015712.story?page=2 . This article today though got me thinking: What on earth are we doing listening to Urbanites to much about our "Local, farm fresh food". Apart from a few urban CSAs and City Farm type operations, this food isn't really all that local. Yes, it's as local as it can possibly be, and I commend city people for shopping at Farmer's Markets and getting out to the country once a year for a Harvest Festival. All that is really great. But I agree with the naysayers who say that Local Food may not be the most environmentally beneficial thing for city dwellers to eat. If you live in LA, that kiwi shipped across the Pacific in a mega-ship might have a lower per-bite carbon footprint than the apple driven in a pick-up from NorCal.

But, believe it or not, not all Americans live in Urban Areas. The US Census says that about 79% of Americans live in Urban areas. Urban being defined as - get this - 2500 people or more. Here's a little chart to help you decide how many Americans live in Urban Areas, by category percent and (the cumulative percent):

Urban Areas over 200,000 : 58.274%
Urban Areas 50,000 to 199,999: 10.372% (68.619%)
Urban Clusters 5,000 to 49,999: 8.918% (77.537%)
Urban Clusters 2,500 to 4,999: 1.654% (79.191%)

Sorry about not knowing how to make a chart, but back to the topic at hand. Having lived in or spent time in many different places, I can say that for most cultural purposes, Urban Areas, with real amenities, culture and markets don't start until 50,000 at best, and there are plenty of wastelands that approach 200,000. But for our purposes, we're going to look at the 31.5% of the population that lives in Urban Clusters of 49,999 people and less. And by look at them I mean: These are the people for whom Local Foods really make sense. Towns in Rural Iowa, Montana, Georgia. This is where we should be developing our local food cultures, helping to start Farmers' Markets and Business to Business food networks.

These are the places it makes Economic, Environmental and Social sense to develop a local food industry because can be cheaper than mega-agriculture, non-elitist, and help form community in places that are bleeding population. I'm sorry, but Queens, NY doesn't need much help with it's "sense of place" and "community identity," but Algona, IA might be a different story.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Soap in the tap lines!?

There is a national chain beer bar near my house that I enjoy going to. I have met the main bartender many times and he's a great guy who strikes a nice balance between his beer and his markets beer. The manager too. In a town known for its devotion to Red Bull and Michelob Golden Draft Light, the Bell's, Sierra Nevada, Lift Bridge and Summit on tap here are an oasis.

Sadly, the water's not always just right at this oasis. Over the last 6 months to a year, I have noticed that the beer often tastes soapy/chemically. I have ALWAYS brought it up to the bartender and have always gotten my beer replaced. I'm not the only person who notices this by far. From people drinking Two Hearted to Leinie's to Coors Light, I have seen many comment on the taste. But still, it's such a good bar to go to. Affordable, decent selection, friendly staff. What's a beer geek to do?

I've chosen to keep going. Occasionally. And I say something every time, both bad when the beer tastes too strongly of sanitizer, and good when it doesn't. I think it's important to reward a place for having good beer since I want to drink good beer. I also think it's important to "punish" a place by not spending as much money as I could there when they have beer problems. But I make sure it's known what I am doing. As an Economist, it's obvious that the market will work this problem out. If the bad beer ruins the experience for a set of people, they won't go there, the bar with either fix the problem, switch their selection target, or close. But what the market doesn't automatically supply is perfect information. Are people not buying these beers because they aren't "cool" any more? Did our staff upset some people? Or is it the soapy taps? I try and provide my part of that information, please do the same.

Or better yet, how do you deal with a bar/business that isn't doing things just right in your mind? Tell me on Twitter @StCloudBeerGeek

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Single Barrels, I want to see more.

Recently, the liquor store I work for, Westside Liquor in Central Minnesota, purchased a single barrel of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. For those who aren't familiar with the idea of a single barrel, what it means is that instead of getting bottles of booze that have been blended with booze from the dozens or hundreds of barrels from that distilling, it's just one (theoretically better than average) barrel. I think this is great.

Buffalo Trace is Sazerac's "small scale" distillery where they use smaller batches and stills to produce some of the more artisan names they've acquired over the years such as Elmer T. Lee, Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg. Really phenomenal bourbon. And the flagship brand, Buffalo Trace is a really phenomenal bourbon for the price, generally between $20 and $25 for 750 ml (the single barrel is the same cost as the regular). If you drink bourbon/whiskey/whisky/scotch you should really check it out. The Single Barrel that was selected from a pool of 5 by Westside is a bit more robust and rounded than the average, and I believe a bit more potent. But the regular is plenty good.

This single barrel purchase (it was around 20 cases of 750 mL we had to purchase) and another, of 9 yo Knob Creek has been very successful, and the store is looking at purchasing a barrel of Basil Haden, another store favorite.

I would like to see more single barrels though, not just in our store, but everywhere, and of everything. I'd like to see a Single Barrel Congnac from Bache Gabrielson. I'd like to see a Single Barrel Rum of Rum from Kilo Kai. I'd like to see a Single Barrel of Bourbon County Brand Stout from Goose Island. What? Yes. If breweries, especially those with impressive barrel houses like Goose Island, would release (on contract or at will) some single barrel bottlings of beers it would put an interesting spin on the whale hunting that goes on. Those looking for those "oh so rare" beers would try and track down just those single barrels, leaving more of the still amazing things for the rest of us. Or, those single barrels might be mixed in with normal distribution, allowing more people to try an amazing product.

I realize, of course, that you can't go too crazy with single barrels. You need those really good ones to balance out those really bad ones that you will inevitably get. But if more brands in general did this it would still benefit the general bourbon/brandy/beer drinking public's taste buds without impacting the general quality of any given brand, and it might make people strike out more into other brands to boot.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bayfield County, WI: A rural/local foodie paradise

Last month, my wife's family took a vacation to Bayfield County, WI. I expected scenic views of Lake Superior, small town quaintness, sea caves and maybe some fresh cherries and fish. And I was right. And oh so wrong.

Bayfield County, by a series of cultural and geographical quirks, is paradise for those of us who consider ourselves foodies, particularly when interested in local food culture. The county (and I'll also include nearby Ashland, WI) sits on a peninsula that juts northward into Lake Superior, and includes the towns of Washington, Bayfield, Red Cliff and Cornucopia. In the center of this peninsula is an area about 4 miles north to south and 1 mile east to west where farmers can grow apples, raspberries, blue berries, sweet corn and most amazingly, sweet cherries (my in-laws house 400 miles south is too cold to grow sweet cherries, this really is an anomaly). And you can add to that fresh trout and whitefish caught right out of Lake Superior, beef, lamb, duck and chicken raised on area farms, and even a dairy, Tetzner's Dairy, that produces milk, cheese and ice cream.

Let me stop there so I can talk about Tetzner's. We first spotted them at the food co-op in Ashland, which was small but well stocked, where we got ice cream. We ate it on the way to a concert and quickly decided we needed more. A little researched showed us that this place was close and also had cheese. Our last day in town we went and it was worth it. The place is just a small outbuilding on a dairy farm, totally self service and homey. Clearly, this place was designed for locals, not tourists.

Another place I absolutely loved was the Bayfield Apple Company, just northwest of Bayfield. Here we sampled a few different products made from the apples grown on the farm, but it was the cider-both sweet and hard-that got my attention. As a local foodie, homebrewer, and economist, I have always wondered why cidering isn't as popular as winemaking in Minnesota. The owner showed us his rather impressive cidering operations (which he did in addition to selling apples for in-hand eating). The process supplies him with cider and the raw ingredients for apple butter and a few other jams. He's so good at using the whole product that 8 bushels of apples gives him only one gallon of waste (1 bushel of apples is at least 10 gallons), which he doesn't throw away but instead uses to deter animals from entering his orchards.

Perhaps the best part though about Bayfield was that local food was not just a consumer-tourist industry. Many, if not all of the restaurants used local ingredients and had rotating menu's. Be that the semi-casual South Shore Brewpub, the "you better have reservation's" Wild Rice, or the "do you think we have too many pink flamingos?" Maggie's right in Bayfield.

I could go on and on about pie's, wool, book stores, candy, bout tours and more, but I think I'll stop. It's not that far from Minneapolis, go there yourself! Here's some links to get you started:

Bayfield Chamber of Commerce:
Tetzner's Dairy:
Bayfield Apple Company:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My thoughts on Top 100 lists

So, obviously to those who know me at all and follow the beer web, this is going to be a post about BeerAdvocate's recent redo of their BA Top 100 list. But it's also about top 10, top 100 and top 1 billion lists in general, the purpose and benefits of them, as well as disservices they do.

First, a little background. hosts a list of the Top 100 beers rated on their site with some parameters ( For a long time, it was a normalized score of any beer with greater than 10 reviews, weighted by the total number of reviews. Westy 12 and Pliney the Younger were perennial tops. I liked this list, apart from I felt 10 reviews wasn't enough. 10 reviews could honestly be written by a group of people sharing one 22 oz bottle. Not that I thought that happened, but it meant the list was really relevant to a list of elites who could afford to go out of their way to experience these beers for the most part, except a few really, really exceptional brews. Not to mention, rare brews carry a bit of selection bias into their scores. About a week ago, the list went through some experimental changes. One was the minimum number of reviews was lifted to 1000 reviews. This meant all the beers were accessible, but also meant only breweries with the capacity to produce and distribute to a large population were included. Finally (it seems), the list was adjusted so that the minimum number of reviews was the mean number of reviews for the population, currently 105. So a beer must be of at least average availability and interest to get on the list. I like this, but I'm not here to talk about how to build a list.

I want to talk about why I like that the BA Top 100 even exists. Apply it as you will to restaurants, movies, whatever. Top 100 lists with the type of user input we see on BA (97,156 reviews between the 100 of them) indicate what the people who like beer see as good beer. Consistently and across the board, people like these beers, and if you want to try a really good beer, you can reliably do it. Especially with this new list, anyone can go out and find a few beers on that list to see if the y agree, to see if their taste buds are in the majority or not, and if they aren't, who cares? But at least this list isn't just compiled by a small group of editors or even a single author as we often see (RIP Mr. Jackson).

To me, this list or any other list like it is not a definitive, end all be all list of the best beers in the world. It's just a very good starting point for you to start looking for you personal top 100.