Billion Dollar Beer

Get ready for a lot more of this.

Earlier this week, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits was sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion. With a B. I read the news on my phone just after I woke up Monday morning and audibly said “Holy shit.” The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the craft beer community, with the main reaction consisting of phrases like “selling out,” “never drinking their beer again,” “another one bites the dust,” and other vitriolic knee-jerk epigrams. I understand why, too. I, for whatever reason, felt a bit personally hurt by the news. Intellectually, it’s not hard to understand: you don’t turn down a billion dollars. Emotionally, however, I have felt strong ties to Ballast Point since my earliest days of drinking craft beer, when a Big Eye IPA made me realize what people meant by “West Coast IPA.” Ballast Point was my introduction to the San Diego craft beer world I have come to love and admire so much. My first (of many) craft brewery t-shirts was a black Victory at Sea shirt that my girlfriend gave me for Christmas. I remember visiting their Scripps Ranch brewery when they were still renting the space, and watching the expansion of the facility on each subsequent visit. I visited their second location in Little Italy the first week they opened, and then hung out there whenever I visited San Diego, excited to try all the R&D beers brewed at their pilot brewery. Of the 1,250 different beers I’ve tried, 50 have come from Ballast Point alone—more than any other brewery. Ballast Point was the first brewery I was actually passionate about, and the news of them selling the company took the wind out of my sails.

“Calm Before the Storm” was a pretty appropriate name for this beer seven months ago.

Of course, this was only my initial reaction. With time to think about it, let alone analyze the details of the buyout and read what the brewery’s official response has been, it becomes abundantly clear why this was the correct business decision for them. It provides Ballast Point with tons of capital to expand their brewing capacity and distribution networks, with my assumption that they will quickly enter the top ten or fifteen breweries in terms of barrel production nationwide. All news coming out of the brewery insists this is a hands-off sale and that the brewing staff and management will not change, but simply have more resources at their disposal. I hope this is true and that they continue to create quality beer for a growing market. The main fear, of course, is that with rapid expansion and production volume increases, quality will suffer. I’m not the first to point out that Ballast Point’s flagship beer, Sculpin IPA, tastes like it has dipped a few notches since they promoted it to their flagship beer about three years ago. It’s also likely that the beer has stayed the same, but over that same period of time, my palate has changed and grown more immune to hop bitterness, and the beer consequently seems to have more of a malt character than it did before. The other question, and one that people plugged into the craft beer community seem to care about, is whether or not the sale qualifies as “selling out?” While some have automatically labeled this as a move that directly puts money spent on Ballast Point products into the pockets of AB-InBev, the multinational colossus of a beer company, the details are a little more complicated. Basically, Constellation Brands owns the U.S. rights to the Grupo Modelo (who makes Corona, Modelo, et al.) because of antitrust issues that came into effect when AB-InBev acquired the Grupo Modelo a few years ago. So Constellation Brands went from merely importing these Mexican beers to opening large-scale breweries here in the States. It’s incredibly complicated, but should you be worried about supporting the king of Macrobrews by buying Ballast Point beer? The answer is: not really.

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The oldest photo I could find from Ballast Point. Back when Instagram filters were all the rage.

What this sale does make abundantly clear is the impact that craft beer has over the beer market as a whole. A growing market share each year would not keep going unnoticed by bigger companies with more money and resources. But one thing that I am certain of is that the folks at Ballast Point honestly love beer. Their original brewing facility, even before their half-warehouse in Scripps Ranch, is Home Brew Mart, which serves as a lasting testament to brewing. Yes, they serve increasingly mass-produced Sculpin on tap, but the employees are just as happy to show customers exciting new hop varieties and offer brewing advice to people who want to brew themselves. My hope for the company is they are able to keep their zeal for beer alive because of record profits, not in spite of them. I will continue to drink Victory at Sea regularly, as well as many of the other Ballast Point beers I have come to love, but not out of blind faith. If I feel a drop in quality arises because of expanded production, I have no problem relegating their beers to my fond memories instead of my refrigerator. What ultimately drives (or should, at least) the beer market is drinking what you like. If you like it, drink it; if you don’t, don’t. There are thousands more breweries where that one came from.


What do you think? Did Ballast Point sell out? Is this sale different from AB-InBev buying up other breweries like Elysian and Golden Road?  Let me know in the comments!

 

I Love Austin, TX

Most of my favorite American cities are those that take their food seriously. Quite often, a locale with a vibrant arts scene also plays host to innumerable great restaurants and bars. This is why I love visiting Portland but would never wish a trip to Houston upon anyone. Yet, a few hours to the west of that bland sprawl in Texas’ Gulf Coast sits a town that rivals any when it comes to arts, culture, and food. I had the pleasure of visiting Austin this weekend with my girlfriend Victoria for a quick getaway and spent 48 hours in gastronomic and zymurgical bliss.

We flew in late Friday night, with just enough time to check out Sixth Street, the bar destination of poor college kids, working adults, and tourists alike. The bars lining both sides of street, nearly all of which were leaking live music out of their doors and into my ears, were full to the brim and the closed-off street was bursting with people as well. It was actually a bit too overwhelming and we were tired from the flight so we decided to turn in early to enjoy a full day on Saturday.

The following morning began with a trip to JuiceLand, a small chain of juice bars peppered throughout Austin (and one location in Brooklyn). After a strawberry-banana-peanut butter-chia seed-apple juice smoothie there and an hour wandering around the giant, flagship Whole Foods in the center of town, Victoria and I headed west with our friends who were visiting from Dallas. Fifteen miles down the highway, houses become scarce, trees become abundant, and the ranches of hill country reveal themselves. Out this way lies the best one-two punch of beer and pizza I have experienced in America so far: Jester King Brewery and Pieous pizza.

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These people are about to receive 500 mililiters of beer after 3 hours of waiting in the sun.

My first encounter with Jester King was about four years ago when their beers still made it out to California regularly. I picked up a 750ml bottle because of its artwork and name: Black Metal Imperial Stout. It was (and still is) badass. A year later, Jester King had changed their recipe for this beast of a beer by fermenting it with yeasts native to the ranch the brewery sits on instead of pre-packaged cultures from White Labs or Wyeast. Just after this change took place, I visited Austin and happened to meet the owner of the brewery, Jeffrey Stuffings, who graciously gave me a tour the following day. Jeffrey capped the experience by opening a bottle of a raspberry sour beer called Atrial Rubicite, which instantly blew any framboise or other raspberry beer I’d ever had completely out of the water. It was extremely sour, yes, but what I couldn’t comprehend was how fresh the raspberries tasted. After sitting for months in a barrel and a few weeks or more in a bottle, it seemed like the fruit had just come off the bush.

Fast-forward a couple years and Atrial Rubicite is one of the most sought after beers in the world. Any beer trading forum you view will have at least one post (if not many) with the title “ISO: Atrial; FT: You Name It”. ISO is beer trading shorthand for “in search of” and FT signifies what the poster has “for trade.” People love Atrial Rubicite. And luckily enough, of all the weekends I picked to go to Texas, July 24-26 was the one that the brewery decided to release this year’s batch of their sour nectar. Needless to say, it was packed. My previous visit saw five cars in the parking lot and this one saw north of 500. The line for bottles of Atrial Rubicite was about three hours long. Did I mention it was 95 degrees outside? It’s an outstanding beer, but I wasn’t going to risk heat stroke, a terrible sunburn, and my precious time on a short trip for 500ml for a beer I’ve had before. Yes, it would be an outstanding addition to my cellar but I was happy enough with enjoying it fresh from the tap on that sunny Saturday.

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I forgot to take a picture until I was almost done. It was that good.

The beer pours a beautiful rosy pink color, with a white head of foam that dissipates fairly quickly. From five feet away you can smell the fresh Washington raspberry aroma volatizing and finding its way into the pleasure centers of your brain. The taste is quite tart, though slightly less sour than previous batches, with raspberries front and center. I detected a bit of acetic acid (vinegar) and a tinge of oak, but to a far less extent than the berries. The beer warmed up quickly, given the temperature outside, but it retained all of its desirable characteristics even as it passed 75 degrees. Victoria loved the beer, as did my other two friends, one of whom was a wine drinker skeptical about trying it. After purchasing enough bottles to fill my suitcase, we departed with rumbling stomachs clamoring for pizza.

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Sopressata decided to meat in the middle.

Okay, maybe they weren’t clamoring for pizza, but we were hungry and I was keen on introducing my three companions to Pieous, home to some of the most authentic Neapolitan pizza I’ve had this side of the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the wake of other beer enthusiasts who had made the three-mile trek to Pieous, despite the existence of a perfectly fine pizza establishment on the same parcel of ranch that Jester King inhabits. Evidently they also were in the know. I ordered one of the most popular pizzas, the Fat Queen, which is topped with pepperoni, sopressata, and Italian sausage. Normally, a pie that loaded with meat would be a greasy, salty mess with a jumble of flavors that become difficult to differentiate—not here. The spiciness of the sopressata heightened rather than masked the fennel flavor of the house-made sausage and made the savory notes of the pepperoni more pronounced. The sweetness from the crushed tomatoes did not detract from the subtle sweetness of the fresh mozzarella and the bed of sourdough crust that the ingredients all sat upon was perfectly cooked, with bubbles that had blackened beautifully and an edge that was delightfully chewy.

As if this were not enough (and it certainly was), I insisted that we also split a pastrami plate. When the owners took over the space two and a half years ago, there was an old, high-quality smoker that they could not get rid of, no matter how unrelated it was to their idea of perfect Neapolitan pizza. Keeping it in the restaurant proved to be a brilliant move, because the pastrami they make in it is some of the best I’ve ever had. It has black crust on the exterior, but comes thinly sliced and ready to melt in your mouth instantly, like a hybrid of a smoked brisket and pride of a Jewish deli. The platter it came on also had pickled onions, two types of mustard, sourdough bread, and a pickle. All of these were quite tasty but after trying a bit of each, I decided to eat the pastrami all by itself and I’m sure I made the right call.

After a lazy afternoon spent napping and digesting, we all met up with friends, old and new, on Rainey Street—the de facto row for gastropubs, hip restaurants, and new condos. Our first stop was Clive Bar, which seemed (not unlike other bars on the block) to have been converted from a bungalow-style house into a bar with a large outdoor patio. At the back corner of the patio was a small building which looked like a small church from the old West, but it served mescal instead of the good word. On a warm Austin night, it was the perfect place to throw back a mescal mule, chat with friends, and soak in the ambience of the coolest city in Texas.

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We will be back soon!

To finish the night, I brought as many people as would listen to me down the street to Craft Pride, a bar that only serves craft beer brewed in the Lone Star State. I had a few fine offerings, but none compared to the Yellow Rose IPA from Lone Pint Brewery. I had heard about this beer, forgotten about it, and ordered it after far too much deliberation looking at the big board. It had a fine citrusy aroma and extremely clean taste full of grapefruit, pear, and honey. I sought it out the next day at a bottle shop to no avail, but will soon be asking a friend in Texas to ship bottles my way.

I could hardly believe how much great food and drink we had packed into a single, scorching day in the heart of Texas, but we pulled it off and went to sleep happy. Our second and final day in Austin was much more relaxed and involved a homemade breakfast of chicken and waffles, a trip to the Barton Springs creek, and Victoria’s first experience with queso—the dip that epitomizes Tex-Mex cuisine. Two days was not nearly enough time to explore everything Austin has to offer. With hundreds of great local restaurants and innumerable food trailers, the capital of Texas has a rich food culture, which I fully intend to explore on repeat visits.


What’s your favorite part of Austin? Where should I eat on my next trip (other than Franklin BBQ, because, obviously)?

 

Modern Times: Two Years of Great Beers

First, let me say this: I am an unabashed fan of Modern Times Brewery and any attempts to be completely objective about their birthday party will likely fall short. I went to their Second Anniversary Soirée over the weekend and had a fantastic time. On Sunday, I arrived at the brewery (also known as the Lomaland Fermentorium) at noon for session three of the four-part bonanza. I was able to secure one of the few seats available at the bar and ordered a beer I had been eyeing on the taplist for a while. It was a Berliner Weisse with peaches added, and before I could take my first sip, the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place” started playing over the speakers. I knew then it was going to be an awesome Sunday afternoon. That first beer set the tone nicely: it was a bit tart, refreshing, and had some mouthwatering juiciness from the added peaches. The Dancing Plague (as it was called) left me wanting more, which was perfect because I had nine more beer tickets attached to my entry wristband.

Just in time for me to order a second taster, my friend Mike arrived and wasted no time asking for the Anniversary IPA. I stayed with another low-alcohol beer and tried the Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, a Pale Ale hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Nelson Sauvin hops, which each carry pleasant light and tropical fruit notes. The goal of this beer is to emulate white wine characteristics, and I’m sure it would have attracted quite a few Real Housewives and divorcées, had there been any present at the brewery. I didn’t love this beer initially, but revisited it at the end of the day and it was actually my second favorite of the afternoon. With Mike able to hold down the fort at the coveted bar seat, I was free to wander around a little bit with my third beer, the Anniversary IPA that my cohort was so eager to try.

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This Geofilter Seemed to Fit the Mood

If you’ve never been to the Lomaland Fermentorium, you really should. I’m confident that it’s the only active brewery in the world that has one wall decorated with a Post-It note mosaic of Michael Jackson and Bubbles and the opposite wallpapered with comic books. The bar itself is made of old hardcover books and topped with marble, and the rest of the tasting area looks like a minimalist vintage store. All of the bartenders were knowledgeable and quick to ask a brewer if I asked a really specific question (I did). In addition to the beer, the party also had a Louisiana cuisine food truck out front, unlimited free pours of Modern Times coffee (yes, they are also coffee roasters), and free savory Kind Bars, which were unusual but tasty. Lastly, the Anniversary Soirée served as a bottle release for the Monsters’ Park Imperial Stout variants that had been aged in 10 and 12 year old bourbon barrels. The 12 year version was sold out by the time I arrived but I happily snagged a bottle of the 10 year from the merchandise booth.

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Monsters Playground – So Fun, Its Scary

After milling about, I did what I came there to do and tasted the rare offerings without interruption. Of the various wine-grape-infused saisons on tap, I loved the color and the nose of the Funky Universal Friend with Pinot Noir, but found the taste a bit lacking, and had the opposite experience with the Zinfandel Must Brett Saison, which sadly lacked a proper name. My sixth beer was the one I was most excited about and the main reason I bought a ticket to the third session, as it was the only one to feature Monsters’ Playground, a sour stout conditioned on citrus. It was phenomenal. The aroma was orange and orange rind with a hint of chocolate, similar to those chocolate oranges that I always see but never purchase. The first wave of flavor was a distinct sour tartness that slowly revealed its roasty undertones, followed by lime juice. The back-palate was all orange and left a tart flavor that did not dissipate until long after swallowing. I loved every one of Modern Times’ sour beers from their first release last December and this sour stout proved that they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to those tart, microbial beers we all love so much.

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To Quote the Poet Ice Cube: It Was a Good Day

They had a few beers I decided not to try in order to revisit my favorites, which were the Dancing Plague with Peaches, Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, and of course, another pour of Monsters’ Playground. I keep a list of every beer I’ve had, as long as I’ve enjoyed six ounces or more, and these tasters wouldn’t have qualified unless I had two of each of them. I know it’s slightly ridiculous but I wasn’t going to bend the rules after 1,150 beers. After finishing all ten of my tasters and feeling immensely satisfied, I decided to try some of Modern Times’ cold brew coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker at all; in fact, I’ve only paid for a cup of coffee once in my life, and that was at a coffee shop that literally did not have anything other than coffee to drink. These cold cups of joe, however, were on the house, so I figured I should at least see what Modern Times was up to when they’re not turning water, hops, barley, and yeast into happiness. Of their two blends, I preferred their Secret Beach summer blend to the standard Black House, as it was a little bit lighter in body and had some fruit notes that surprised me. Maybe one day I’ll start drinking coffee and start picking up on the nuances of it, like I do for other beverages. Until then, I’m going to use that money for beer and the anniversary celebrations of the wonderful people who brew it.