Grand Rapids’ Grand Entrance

Sometimes, craft breweries find success, expand wildly, eventually lose steam, and either sell out or alienate their base of serious enthusiasts and settle for a spot next to Blue Moon’s tap handle at Chili’s. Other times, they keep doing what they’ve always done on an increasingly large, but sensible, scale and bring quality beers to more and more folks across the country. I am quite happy to report that Founders Brewing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan falls into the latter group.

For the past few years, traveling in the U.S. has almost always meant stopping at a bottle shop or Whole Foods store to see what beers are available that I don’t have access to in Southern California. In many cities, from Austin to New Orleans to New York City, this goes hand in hand with buying Founders beer. Their bottles made their way into my suitcase (if they lasted that long) and into my heart. In fact, the first beer trade I ever did came with a bottle of Founders Imperial Stout as an extra. Just last month, I wrote about how excited I was to try Breakfast Stout while I was in London. And now, without any trading or interstate travel, I have access to their magnificent brews right here in Long Beach.

The news came to me at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, where I can be found at least once a week on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, via a flyer showing the month’s events. Down near the bottom was the headline “Founders OC Launch Party” and that was enough to sell me on coming back the following Thursday. It wasn’t until the day of the event that I realized they would have not only Breakfast Stout on tap, but also Kentucky Breakfast Stout (the famed “KBS” as it is known in beer circles) and Blushing Monk, a raspberry bonanza of a beer. That night, I slipped in through the back door to find a packed house in the bar area. Looking at the board of current taps, I saw that nearly half of them were occupied by Grand Rapids’ finest. I couldn’t wait another minute and got myself ten ounces of KBS.

He likes brewing beer and I like drinking it!

Kentucky Breakfast Stout is a bourbon barrel aged version of Breakfast Stout, which includes coffee and chocolate, and it quickly became apparent why this had been hailed as one of the world’s best beers for the last ten years. It’s a decadent and flavorful beer that’s incredibly easy to drink and reminiscent of a dark chocolate lava cake. Less than halfway through my glass, Mike, a representative from Founders who was there for the release, introduced me to their brewmaster, Jeremy. With my small beer notebook in tow, I asked Jeremy all sorts of specific questions about KBS and geeked out at his answers. Did you know KBS is aged in Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Jim Beam barrels that range in age from four to twenty years? You do now! Jeremy then pointed me towards Project Pam, a beer I hadn’t but admittedly should have been familiar with. This Black IPA was aged in bourbon barrels that had most recently held maple syrup from a Michiganian hero who ages maple syrup in bourbon barrels for what I imagine is the single greatest thing that has ever happened to a pancake. The resulting brew is complex without seeming muddled or busy.

You won’t regret either of these purchases.

After a few tastes of beers that were being passed around among friends (Blushing Monk might have come through two or three times because its raspberry goodness is too great not to be shared), I finished the Founders OC Launch Party with a glass of Backwoods Bastard, a bourbon barrel aged edition of their scotch ale. Unsurprisingly, it was another fantastic beer that matches the malt sweetness inherent to the style with the sweetness of bourbon, along with notes of oak and dark fruit. It was an apt finish to a night full of beers that fell on the heavy and sweet side of the spectrum. Overall, I am thrilled that Founders has distribution in Southern California now and have already picked up a six-pack of their Azacca IPA and bottles of Backwoods Bastard and their Imperial Stout to add to my cellar. As you see them creep into stores and onto taplists, make a point to start trying beers from Founders. And when KBS hits shelves in a few weeks, you have my permission to freak out—I know I will.

 


Have you had Founders in Southern California yet? Lucky to live somewhere that it’s been available for awhile? Let me know!

 

Ales Abroad: Beer in Cornwall and London

It was neat to see how much locally brewed beer there was in Cornwall, even if it wasn’t amazing.

Having just returned from England, I couldn’t help but notice that the beer is slightly different there than it is here in America. For starters, it’s cheaper, warmer, and less flavorful. The stereotype about warm beer in England is half-true: much of the beer served in English pubs is cask ale, which is pulled out of room temperature kegs using a hand pump. (Side note: I believe a compromise would be perfect, because as I’ve mentioned before, much of the draft beer in America is served far too cold.) I admit that I don’t know why beer is cheaper there, though Southern California probably isn’t the best rubric by which to measure America’s beer prices. As far as flavor is concerned, I suppose it depends on what you consider the standard here in the U.S.—if the three most popular beers by volume (Bud Light,  Coors Light, and Budweiser) are the norm, English beer has considerably more flavor. But if you’re reading this, you probably have somewhat of a taste for craft beer and would find the average cask ale in England to be somewhat lackluster.

While I would like to say something about the appreciation for subtlety and the importance of keeping true to style constraints, I actually found most of the beers I tried to be rather unexciting. And I believe there are a few reasons for that. First, English hops are quite different from the American hops of the Yakima Valley that we’ve grown accustomed to. English hop varietals don’t usually have the characteristic pine, resin, or citrus notes that we find in our Pale Ales and IPAs; instead, they are known for their floral and grassy flavors. English brewers also tend to use fewer hops and the resulting beer has a less bitter and somewhat muted (to my palate) flavor. Additionally, the malt used in many of the cask ales I tried was on the sweeter, but lighter, side with flavors of honey and crackers instead of the rich caramel notes we often find in American ales of a similar color. So overall, the majority of cask ale I tried was light in body, amber in color, and slightly sweet in taste with no real bitterness (this last bit being somewhat of a curveball as the style was often just “bitter” or “extra special bitter”). This adds up to a beer that can be consumed surprisingly quickly and voluminously, which I believe is the point. They even serve them in imperial pints, which hold 25% more beer than our puny American sixteen ouncers.

It is easy to miss, right?

It is easy to miss, right?

So, did I have any good beer in England? Absolutely. One night in London, after much research on both BeerAdvocate and CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale, an organization that nearly single-handedly saved cask real ale from going extinct), I went to Euston Tap, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar near the Euston train station. Behind the bar were about fourteen taps and eight cask pumps, each pouring a noteworthy beer. I started with was the most exciting brew to me, Founders Breakfast Stout, a world-renowned beer that I’d only had a sip of once before. It had all of the rich coffee and chocolatey goodness I was hoping to experience and was also able to grab their last to-go bottle of it as well. With that out of the way, and some water to clear my palate, I tried the bartender’s choice of cask ales, both of which were done in a hop-forward West Coast style. Clouded Minds Luppol Golden Ale came first and was filled with a classic Cascade hop aroma and flavor in a hazy golden package. Next up was Summer Wine Brewery’s Oregon Pale Ale, which was a successful American Pale Ale in my eyes, as it balanced citrus and pine flavors with a clean malt backbone and an ABV around 6%. I was starting to think that the two best British beers I would havewould be near-replicas of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the quintessential American craft beer; however, a few nights later on New Year’s Eve, I opened a can of Magic Rock Brewing’s Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose, which lived up to its name with plenty of salt and berries on the palate and satisfactorily ended 2015 for me.

I was happy to see a few breweries branching out stylistically in these ways, and I think that bodes well for the future of English craft beer. And even though I wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the cask ales I tried, I do believe it’s a good thing that they continue to satisfy the average beer drinker’s thirst and carry on a centuries-old tradition in pub culture. As long as they’re not drinking Coors Light, Heineken, or Stella Artois, I’m content.


What do you think? Was I too harsh on cask ale or was I missing something? Or do you agree that the beer in England has as much flavor as the food?

 

 

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!