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!

 

How to Drink Properly

Being alive right now is great: there’s a real-life hoverboard, Game of Thrones just had its best season in years, and really outstanding beer is more accessible than ever. While you probably won’t be McFlying through Hill Valley just yet and have to wait until next spring for more adventures in the Seven Kingdoms, chances are you could have a world-class beer within the next hour if you live in the developed world (Note: states with vestigial alcohol laws from Prohibition and dry counties are not the developed world). Consider the following situation: you’ve been given a $25 gift certificate to a wine store with a decent beer selection and it’s about to expire tomorrow. So you grab a friend, go to the store, and plan to pick out an IPA and Imperial Stout respectively. After some browsing, you decide on Firestone Walker’s excellent Double Jack (which is luckily on sale) and your friend selects this year’s vintage of The Abyss from Deschutes, which both of you have heard great things about, but never tried. You go home, grab some frosty pint glasses out of the freezer that you stole from a pizza place back in college on Pint Night, and pour in your beers to try. The moment finally arrives and, after clinking glasses, you each take a big sip… and the beers are severely disappointing.

So what happened? Did Firestone Walker AND Deschutes, larger breweries with trained quality control departments, both happen to release bad batches of their beers? It’s possible. It’s also unlikely. A closer look at the events leading up to your taste shows that is much more likely to be a series of errors, mostly your own, that caused the beer to be found wanting. Sorry. Let’s go through step by step to see what went wrong and how to fix it.

It’s great that the Double Jack was on sale, but the reason behind the discount does not bode well for its flavor. You double check your Double Jack double IPA and it is within a week of its “Enjoy By” date. The wine shop isn’t supposed to sell it past that, so they lowered the price to move it quickly. Unfortunately, your beer is now three months old and the burst of fresh, citrusy hops that you crave has now turned into a generic, murky bitter flavor. And your friend, whose face recoils after his sip as if he just took a shot of bourbon, is experiencing the opposite problem. His beer tastes “hot” and boozy because it is: a brand new batch of a high-alcohol beer, especially one aged in spirit barrels, has a lot of alcohol that’s going to burn a bit going down. A previous year’s vintage of that same beer will likely seem much smoother. This brings us to our first rule.

This Triple IPA was bottled the morning that I bought and drank it, because El Segundo knows how important freshness is!

Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time! A quick and dirty guideline for some common styles is as follows: Pale Ales/IPAs/Double IPAs/Any “Hoppy” Variant of Other Styles should be drank within a month of being bottled, the sooner the better. Imperial Stouts/Baltic Porters/Barleywines/Quadrupels/Anything Big and Dark are meant to withstand some aging and almost always get better with six months spent in a cool, dark place. After six months, it’s really up to you. The intricacies of cellaring beer will be reserved for a future post, but if the ABV is above 10%, I think 18 months of aging usually turns out pretty nicely. Sour beers are great fresh, but also develop all sorts of interesting flavors over time—I’ve had 16-year-old gueuze from Drie Fonteinen that was amazing. If your beer has something added (e.g. fruit, cacao nibs, coffee, vanilla, peppers), you don’t want to wait too long or those flavors will dissipate. Try to keep it under a year (an exception seems to be cherries/grapes in sour beer, which often intensify over time). Nearly all other beers that do not benefit from aging are best enjoyed within 0-6 months of bottling.

Continuing on, you made a double whammy of a faux pas when you pulled out the frosty pint glasses. You made beer that was too cold even more gelid and you used improper glassware (more on that later). Let’s say the refrigerator was set at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and your glass from the freezer was a rather frigid 10 degrees. Your Double IPA, which can be enjoyed at lower temperatures than the Imperial Stout, was shocked by the sudden drop in temperature. This leads to a visually unappealing “chill haze” turning the otherwise clear beer opaque, but more worrisome is the fact that you just shut off most of the aromas coming out of the glass. At such low temperatures, the aromatic compounds in your beer are unable to volatize and make their way to your nose, where they activate neurons heading to the pleasure centers in your brain. If you want your Nucleus accumbens pleasure center to be properly activated, you must follow rule number two.

Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature! Most people drink their beers too cold. It’s not entirely your fault, however; not only have tasteless light beers predicated their entire marketing campaigns on the teeth-chattering chill of their beers, most bars serve an extremely cold pint because an employee of Budweiser/Miller/Coors sets up their draft lines to what is optimal for their product. Unfortunately, their product is not tasty and keeping it extremely cold helps to hide this fact. That said, beer warms up to its optimal temperature fairly quickly, so a little patience goes a long way. Always reject frozen glasses and mugs and use your hands to add some heat to a beer that’s too cold. I personally try to drink most beer at around 45 degrees and enjoy non-hoppy, bigger beers closer to 55 degrees or higher. It may seem strange at first to drink “warm” beer, but when that bounty of smells opens up for the first time, you’ll soon find that it’s much better. Since one of the keys to tasting a beer properly is smelling it, most glassware is designed (at least partially) to transmit aroma, so pay attention to the third rule.

 

These should cover your bases.

Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware! A quick way to tell whether you’re in a craft beer bar or a bar that happens to have craft beer is by looking at the glasses they serve the beer in. If you don’t see a tulip glass anywhere, it’s probably not a craft beer bar. In our example, you poured a double IPA into a pint glass, which isn’t the worst receptacle for the style, but it’s far from the best. Firstly, drinking sixteen ounces of a higher alcohol beer isn’t really recommended, so you’d be better off with a glass that holds ten to twelve ounces instead. Secondly, pint glasses have a conical shape that opens up towards your nose; that seems ideal at first glance, but we really want the aromatic compounds to stay in the glass, where they’ll hang out until it’s time to sniff them. Any vessel that tapers inward as it goes up will aid that process, which is the reason wine glasses are narrower at the lip than in the middle. Wine glasses are great catch-alls for most beer styles, actually, and I use them all the time. In fact, Tørst, New York’s best beer bar, exclusively serves beer in wine glasses. Tulip glasses are great for most beers too, and I generally use my trusty oversized Modern Times glass (seen above) for my personal beer consumption. If proper temperature and glassware are so critical to the aromatic experience of drinking a beer, following those rules would be useless if you don’t follow the fourth.

Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer! Not every beer needs to be smelled before every sip, but if you have purchased good beer, chances are you want to enjoy it for all it’s worth. In our example where you do everything wrong, you and your friend forgot to smell the beers before taking a big sip. So take a few quick sniffs rather than one long slow draw, as this will help you pick up the aroma more easily. Make a habit of noting the knee-jerk impressions of what you smell—don’t worry about being wrong, as it’s subjective anyway. If you think the aromas are reminiscent of pears, for example, say it. For years, I was always hesitant to voice my opinion when analyzing the nose of a beer (or wine, for that matter). I eventually realized that the first thing I thought I smelt usually lined up with the consensus of the group I tasted with. After taking in the aroma of a beer, take a sip that allows you to let the beer coat your whole mouth, not just the top of your tongue. This will provide a wider view of the beer’s flavor and makes the mouthfeel much more apparent. With the beer covering more surface area, things like the carbonation, viscosity, and astringency are more detectable, and incorporating them into your tasting can enhance the overall experience of the beer.

While considering all these rules, the most important thing to remember is that drinking beer is fun, so don’t beat yourself up trying to rigidly adhere to them. After implementing them, however, these guidelines do not require constant attention—you just start reaching for fresh beer, proper glassware, etc. and your overall experience is enhanced. So, for a recap, our rules for experiencing beer the right way are as follows:

Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time

Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature

Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware

Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer

On a final note, I’ll say that having a system that standardizes (to a certain extent) your beer drinking experience makes it quite simple to judge beers against each other, both in the moment and in memory. This will tacitly increase your appreciation and recognition of quality beers, so I will add a final rule to the bunch:

Rule No. 5: Drink good beer!

Finding Authenticity

There was a time when quantity reigned supreme in my life; I designate this time in my history by referring to it as “college.” The days of all-you-can-eat dorm food and vast amount of watery beer are now thankfully in the rearview mirror, but why did they occur in the first place? Why did it seem better to drink ten Milwaukee’s Bests that I hated than two Black Butte Porters that actually brought joy? Maybe competition had something to do with it. Though nobody explicitly said as much, it was understood that your social standing seemed to be directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that could you stomach. In a fraternity, legend told of the brother who took 100 beer bongs in a single weekend, thereby joining the Century Club in the most incredible way possible. He was to be revered, as was the person capable of taking the longest pull from a plastic handle of Prestige Vodka, the elixir surely responsible for the greatest number of bad decisions in Westwood Village.

I must reiterate that this is no longer the way I view the world and, while I would like to point to a single eye-opening experience that shook my world like a game of Boggle, the actual change took its course over the length of a Monopoly game, which is to say several months. My first experience drinking a beer and actually enjoying it took place on the sands of Los Cabos, Mexico, when I added a bit of lime to a Negra Modelo and thought “Wow, this beer isn’t just going to get me drunk, it tastes good too!” Back in America, my two gateway beers are probably familiar to many other craft beer drinkers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the aforementioned Black Butte Porter from Deschutes. These beers are exceptionally made for the volume at which they are brewed and lead drinkers down two separate flavor paths (which ultimately lead to Double and Triple IPAs and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, respectively).

For me, however, the impact was much greater and more far-reaching than leading to high-ABV beers that top lists of must-have beers. At a time when Taco Bell constituted a significant portion of my diet, craft beer was the first food or drink that made me actually care about what I was ingesting. Again, the shift from beer pong light lagers to craft beer was a gradual one, but as my worldview towards alcohol adjusted, so did my attitude towards food in general. Maybe others are capable of drinking something made with love and care by a locally-owned brewery one minute and then scarfing down a soulless McDonald’s cheeseburger the next without considering the disparity between the two actions; I am no longer able to. Good craft beer makes you crave authenticity and quality, and sharpens your ability to spot poseurs. Note that I am saying “good” craft beer here: just because a brewery is local or micro does not necessarily mean it produces beer of exceptional quality. I’ve had plenty of beers that would qualify as “drinking local” that I do not plan to have again. Many of them come from young breweries who produce a line-up that reads like the first five recipes in a beginners homebrewing book, with a resulting product that’s not too far off in taste, either.

When I have these uninspired beers, I question why they were brewed to begin with and usually find myself answering the same way: someone with money must have thought a microbrewery would make them more money. The lack of enthusiasm reveals itself in the uninteresting beer. Similarly, I’ve had meals with all the trappings of new wave gourmet or edgy food truck cuisine, but I can tell they exist for the wrong reasons and can cut through the bullshit immediately straight to disappointment. Craft beer has raised this bar for me. “Good enough” no longer suffices. I’ve had hundreds of IPAs, many of which have tasted quite similar, and I can call out from memory the ones that made me pause and reflect before taking a second sip. That is the experience I want. I want a meal from a chef who was born to cook, puts her soul into a meal, and feels crushed if the food isn’t received well. I want to drink beers made by a brewer who would rather see a subpar batch dumped down the drain than passed along to consumers who hopefully won’t notice. There’s no end to almost-upscale gastropubs selling the same $8 fries with house-made ketchup or breweries whose offerings seemed to be designed for your friend who is in the process of graduating past Blue Moon and Shock Top. After a few tastes of the real McCoy, you’ll be digging a little deeper and trying a bit harder to weed out these types of “good enough” establishments.

What I’m suggesting borders on pretension and snobbery; in fact, maybe it skips the border and firmly exists in that realm. But consider this: it’s worth it. Life is too short to settle for quantity over quality, good enough instead of great, or the banal as opposed to the exciting. And for my money, good taste doesn’t become snobby unless you get preachy about it, so keep your head on your shoulders as it rises over mediocrity into the land of authenticity, where passion and originality reign supreme.