Saturday, June 6, 2009

Craft beer interviews

I have something special starting today. I will be doing a series of interviews with several beer lovers. Here's how its gonna work... I am going to select a few craft beer fans and ask them all the same ten questions. I will be picking people with levels of knowledge varying from industry professionals to rank amateurs. I am not going to comment on their answers, as I am trying to provide a glimpse into the mind of a beer lover. I will be posting my personal answers on the questions as the last entry in the series. The questions mainly center around various debates in the craft beer world with a couple extras thrown in for fun.
The first beer lover to be featured is Mike, from southern California. Mike had this to say about himself... "A little about me: Real name: Mike. User name on Overlord. I'm 32, did not touch a sip of alcohol before my 21st birthday, and will maintain that claim for as long as I possibly can. Enjoyed craft beer off and on since the age of 23 or so, but became far more enthused aboutit in my late 20s. I work as a litigation attorney in Southern California."
Anyone who spends anytime on Beeradvocate knows that Mike is very sharp and knows his beer. Here are the questions that he was asked:

1. There is a lot of talk about the hype surrounding certain beers. Some people take a lot of pride in acquiring them while other people feel the beer is overrated and pride themselves on liking less popular beer for the merits of the beer and not all the hype about it. What are you thoughts on this?
"As with any hobby involving the collection of items of which the demand is great and the supply limited, rare beers (or beers perceived as rare) are going to crop up and become status symbols. Craft brewing is not immune to this phenomenon, and considering that the beers are actually consumed, rare items steadily grow more precious over time. This isn't a problem for the hobby as a whole, but given the inherent obsessive qualities of collectors in general, perhaps too-passionate individuals can very easily get out of control and begin to irritate those around them. The product of their fervor is going to be "hype." And, of course, that "hype" is going to directly correlate with how hard a beer is to obtain, and correlate somewhat more weakly with how good the beer is. I take a bit of long view, and appreciate that the interest of others is going to lead to more sales, more interest, and more beers for me to hopefully try. Just don't let hype destroy your beer budget or lead you to skew reviews. If you want to consider yourself an honest reviewer (if you're into reviewing at all), and also prevent yourself from going crazy tracking down every limited release of note, you've got to condition yourself to reject the hype. This can be hard. I'd like to think I enjoy a beer due to its quality, and for no other reason, but there is a certain "extra pleasure" to be obtained when a brew I go out of my way to procure ends up meeting or exceeding my expectations. As for those who explicitly seek out "non-hyped" beers for the purpose of rejecting the status quo in the beer community, I have to wonder what the point is. Folks should drink what they like, and what, within their budget and lifestyle, they can obtain at a reasonable cost. Deciding to drink a beer due to the perceived hype isn't that much different than intentionally seeking out beers that aren't on anyone's radar. In both cases you're ignoring quality choices due to what other people are saying and doing. And that's not a good rationale, at all."

2. A lot of brewers are turning a decent profit now. The Boston Beer Company is a good example with Sierra Nevada, Stone, and Dogfish Head not far behind. Do you feel that as a brewery grows in size its product quality tends to suffer, or is it possible to turn out a world class beer in large quantities?
"I think that any person, corporation, animal, plant, or cosmic entity that is struggling to survive has a high adaptability rate. In trying to prevent extinction, they evolve rapidly, try as hard as they can to keep on functioning, and generally lack any hint of complacency. This type of incredible sustained effort can lead to massive and spectacular failures, but with maximum effort you also have a chance of an incredibly great result. In the case of breweries, when they become established, I think risk-taking and experimentation go down, because without the threat of demise, the status quo suddenly looks quite a bit better. I tend to think that breweries do a pretty good job of keeping existing product lines tasting great as they expand. I'm sure there is some corner cutting going on, but I can think of very few concrete examples from my beer drinking experience in which I thought it was occurring. On the other hand, I definitely notice the following: the larger a brewery gets, the fewer experimental, cutting edge, or radical new products I tend to see from them, ESPECIALLY when you consider that a larger brewery has far more employees and resources to throw into product development. If I were to generalize: big breweries tend to be great at producing a consistent product of dependable quality, but they also seem to be pretty bad at breaking new ground (though there are a few very notable exceptions ... Russian River comes to mind) the larger they get. I believe the type of environment that produces cutting edge beers is anathema to the goals and desires of a big brewer. A big brewery is already successful, and the last thing they want to do is abandon the products that made them that way. I think if you look at any industry, you'll find that the radical innovations came from guys in their garages who were struggling on a shoestring to feed their families. By and large, big companies refine the production and distribution of quality products, and small companies engineer revolutions ."

3. A lot of the craft brew sales are coming from big beers, imperial stouts and the like. How do you feel about a brewer brewing a beer for the purpose of keeping up with market trends?
"On the business side of it, you'd better give the public what they're willing to buy in large quantities if you want to survive. Believing otherwise smacks of naïveté in the business world. I love sours. Love them. But I understand that they are a niche product that appeals to a niche palate, and I don't expect to see six packs of them in every gas station."

4. Beer is getting hoppier. This is more apparent on the west coast, while on the east coast a more balanced approach is taken. In your opinion, which speaks more to the skill of the brewer; brewing a tongue bracingly hoppy beer that still has flavor despite the lack of malt, or brewing a balanced beer with a lot of hops but also a strong malt flavor?
"I think that the skill of the brewer is reflected in how closely they are able to produce the product they intended to make, or, if the end-result is a happy accident, how well they are able to replicate that accident from batch to batch. We can argue for days over which end-product beer is superior but I actually think that has little to do with the skill of the brewer (although it definitely speaks to the quality of the brewer's taste buds). I find that I prefer beers with very strong flavors, be they bitter, sweet, sour, citrus-y, or what have you. I prefer that the main flavor component of an IPA be from the hops, with malt or sweeter tropical fruit tones to balance the typically bitter/citrus component of an IPA. I always want a beer of a particular style to highlight what I consider to be the pre-eminent flavor of that style, but that's just my preference, and I don't expect everyone to share it."

5. Lots of craft beer lovers participate in online forums. Do you feel that sites such as and are the base of the craft beer industry?
"Unfortunately, no. I wish it were the case because it would mean millions of millions of dollars being poured into producing fantastic new beers of every stripe, and of course we of the vocal minority would get an ego boost from our own importance, but sadly, I think we are in general a small, difficult to please, and fractured lot. Ultimately breweries are in the business of selling their products, and we are too small of a market share to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. That being said: for small breweries who are producing niche products of higher-than-average cost, the on-line community is vitally important. People who are willing to pay the most for the best are going to be very important to the brewery producing 2000 bottles at 20 dollars each, because the general market is NOT going to buy those beers. But, those beer releases, and those breweries, make up a very small portion of the craft beer industry."

6. A lot of people complain about the rising cost of beer saying the brewers should have taken the hit on the rising cost of grain, hops, yeast, etc. and kept the price the same for their customers. What's your stance on this?
"I genuinely believe that the last 5-10 years will be looked upon as the halcyon days for craft brewing. The excitement of being part of a small, growing movement, the breweries popping up and trying to make a name for themselves using excellent ingredients still widely available, and the fun of being part of a nascent on-line community really make this a great time to be entering this hobby. I suspect prices will rise now that craft beer as a whole is entering the public consciousness, and I believe that the costs of various components of beer brewing are going to skyrocket as our overcrowded world sees its resources continue to be strained. I look at the prices for wine and distilled spirits (such as scotches), and have to think beer will follow a similar pattern. I think people will look back at the collections they built in the early 2000s and be shocked in 2014 that they could have perhaps bought a nice car with the proceeds of selling them. I think brewers should keep a long view on maintaining the health of their industry. Passing on short term cost increases to customers may anger beer drinkers long after the price increase is no longer necessary. If price increases become permanent, you might find that folks are willing to "live with" slightly lesser variations of their favorites. Prices do go up over time, and I expect the beer industry will follow this pattern as well, but when a price increase has the perception of being driven by something other than "legitimate" business expenses, people get mad. I don't take price increases personally. I just hope brewers don't take it personally when I stop buying their beers."

7. Many people drink both craft beer and BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) products while others refuse to drink BMC. Where do you stand on this and why?
"There are very few products I don't buy due to some moral dilemma. On the other hand, I can absolutely see why folks would reject BMC products entirely, considering that the large brewers have used their lobbying clout and market share to drive out competition, keep ridiculous laws on the books that favor of them, and generally acted in their own best interests rather than the interest of craft brewers. Then again, should we blame them? Isn't it every corporation's job to run its business as well as they can? So long as they aren't breaking the law, whose fault is it? I think most of the blame has to fall on the backs of people who are supposed to be acting in the public interest, but more often use their political positions for personal gain. Considering that I hate 99% of BMC products, I can feel comfortable knowing that I need no moral justification to avoid them; my taste buds are good enough. I do love me some Michelob Dunkelweisse, though."

8. What do you think the craft beer industry should be doing to attract more customers, if anything at all? What could we as craft beer drinkers be doing to convince our friends to try it, if anything at all?
"The craft beer industry should do everything in its power to get people to try their beer. Whether that means getting into more stores, getting on tap at more bars, or pooling clout to get a foothold into sports venues or concert halls, I think craft beer, by and large, speaks for itself ONCE PEOPLE ACTUALLY TASTE THEM! You're never going to out-advertise the BMC oligopoly, so instead focus on getting the product to taste buds. I think the Beverages and More weekend tastings, for example, are a great idea. If you get good beer in the hands of enough people, at some point you've got to expect the better product to go viral."

9. There are 1,400 breweries in the United states alone. Lots of them make great beer but never seem to get off the ground. What makes one brewery do well while others fail?
"I'd say it's three factors: Luck, brewing skill, and opportunity. And, sadly, luck probably has the most to do with it. A few of the right people who have the ability to promote a beer happen to get a hold of it and like it, or the right property or distribution channel happens to be available, or some other fortuitous confluence of factors leads to one brewery succeeding while another fails. Of course, making good beers is an essential element, but think about how many restaurants that make great food fail due to a bad location or a single negative review? In terms of opportunity, I think a lot of brewers get squelched early. I imagine that funding is hard to attain, licenses are either delayed or denied, or the proper location or distribution channel isn't available in that particular location. As with any start-up business, the failure rate is going to be high amongst brewers."

10. Lots of people talk about what brought craft beer to their attention. What caused you, once craft beer had your attention, to pursue your interest in it and become as passionate as you now are?
"I enjoy great beer, and I like talking about new options and breweries. That being said, there's only a finite amount of time in the day, and I think I've reached my "passion threshold." With other life commitments, I don't have the energy to become knowledgeable about every facet of the brewing world, and I'm not sure I care to be. I do want to be an expert on the best beers and breweries out there, but beyond that ... I'll step back and savor the knowledge of others. It was the fact that good beer tastes great that piqued my interest, and with so many new offerings on seemingly a weekly basis, it's easy to keep that interest maintained."


  1. Wow - what great insight into craft brewing. I don't drink at all and I found this interview fascinating. (So much so that I think it has inspired me to launch maybe another, focused blog.)

    Mike's comments strike at the heart of entrepreneurship - balancing passion with pragmatism, innovation with scale, and reaching customers with limited resources.

    And I heartily agree with Mike that luck is a pretty big component of success. I posted a blog, The Art of Business, which basically says entrepreneurship is more art than science.

    However, when you do something you love, even it turns out to be commercially unviable or never quite catches on, you haven't lost anything, but gained experience with something you're passionate about. (Just make sure you don't go broke in doing so.)

  2. Hey, I like this idea a lot! it's a great way to get a good diversity of opinions on here. like the blog, will keep reading

  3. This is a great idea and a welcome cool, calm and collected insight into the reasoning behind a craft beer drinker.

    Thanks for the interviews, and keep up the good work.


    Bill Manley
    Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.