Craft beer is evolving. So is craft retail.

BTBF-2016_logoIt’s no secret that American craft beer changes with the times. The beer in your glass responds to consumer demand and brewer creativity as well as the unseen influences of ingredients, costs and regulation. But the end-product is not the only thing changing.

The many and various ways that craft beer is retailed and ultimately sold to the consumer evolves along with changing market forces and demands. Just as environment shapes the organism, consumers are collectively and unknowingly shaping the craft beer environment.

Think about buying a craft beer back at the turn of the century (for the kids, barely 20 years ago now). Craft beer was a commercial novelty, enjoyed and supported by a strange but loyal following, and the only places it could be purchased were licensed brewpubs or a few dedicated local, so-called “beer bars” such as The Ginger Man, multiple Flying Saucer locations, or a couple of independents. At inception, it was mostly a closed craft market with few access points.

A new business model has arisen from a maturing population fueling suburban sprawl: the “growler-fill station.”

Compare the situation today: It is difficult to find any larger restaurant or bar, even national franchises, without a selection of 30 taps or more. Where years ago a “craft beer” tap may have been grudgingly reserved, most likely for the brewery in the immediate neighborhood, now it is not unusual to find the latest seasonal or limited offering from distant states. Where once only premium liquor stores carried bottles of craft beer, now every major grocery chain has a dominant craft beer section.

Certainly, distribution and legislation have played their parts. Major distributors consolidated and local zoning laws relaxed, which greatly improved the availability of packaged products. Taprooms were legalized just a few short years ago, turning breweries’ sterile manufacturing facilities into vibrant social destinations. Even right now, another effort is moving through the Texas legislature to allow off-premise sales direct from brewery locations.

The consumer end is still reshaping retail as the demographics shift. A new business model has arisen from a maturing population fueling suburban sprawl: the “growler-fill station,” an economic strip-center location with a presence between retail store and beer bar. Patrons can conveniently fill their glasses or their growlers from dozens of taps without trekking farther to an established craft beer destination and retailers get to close at 9 PM, avoiding the expense, hassle and risks of operating a nighttime bar or pub.

We are watching the latest retail phenomenon develop as what may be described as the hybrid or “crossover” business model for craft beer. Retailers are combining other consumer businesses or entertainment venues with the standard growler-fill, reclaiming something closer to the original brewpub model of restaurant plus brew-on-site. These places build premium craft beer bars within or alongside an unrelated product such as a movie theater (Alamo Drafthouse, Flix Brewhouse), an arcade (Free Play, Cidercade) or even a more traditional coffee house (Civil Pour, Golden Boy and a few others).

Obviously, the motivation behind this latest retail model is to play to another market besides craft beer—which is a smart move while costs and competition continue to rise. So far, consumers seem to be embracing these creative chimera businesses, and most seem to be doing well. What’s next for the craft beer retail sector? Stay tuned and find out. SD


Originally published for 8th Annual Big Texas Beer Fest (2019 program).

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Timing is everything, and CraftPAC’s time is now

BTBF-2016_logoThe last thing you would expect to read at a Dallas beer festival would be an article about the Oklahoma craft beer scene.

Most of the nation has always regarded Oklahoma as a little backward, a rural conservative state with few major industries beyond farming and natural gas. Their outdated alcohol laws do not help this reputation—to North Texans especially, as our proximity has made us somewhat familiar with Oklahoma’s legendary backward beer laws and regulations. As arcane and prehistoric as Texas beer laws can be, we could at least take some comfort in knowing that Oklahoman craft beer fans had it worse.

In only a few short months, Oklahoma will have less restrictive beer laws than Texas for the first time ever.

This is about to change in a very significant way come this October. In May 2016, the Oklahoma legislature passed SB 383, which included the most sweeping updates to their alcohol laws since Prohibition. It modernizes if not eliminates many pointless statutes and “blue law” restrictions, and effectively restructures the ABLE Commission (Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement, their state’s version of the TABC).

No more stocking shelves with warm beer, or the infamous “3.2” limit. No more ABV caps for brewpubs, or ridiculous restrictions such as no persons under the age of 21 (which can impact modern craft breweries and gastropubs eyeing a family demographic). No more sales restrictions or special permitting at festivals. An expansion of homebrewing rights, wine and beer licenses for grocery and convenience stores, and broader operating hours/days for retailers. The new laws even allow for direct sales from breweries and stronger brewer rights with regard to distributors.

The law was intentionally given a distant two-year effective date (2018) to allow all the players in Oklahoma—breweries, retailers, distributors, even counties and municipalities—time to react to changes and update their own needs and practices accordingly. (Eighteen counties in the state are still dry.) Since that time other changes have followed, just about all of them progressive and beneficial to the craft beer indutry, including a statewide referendum (State Question 792) validating the aforementioned bill. Oklahomans are warmly embracing the craft beer movement.

Why is any of this relevant to Texas? Earlier this year, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild launched CraftPAC (www.craftpac.org) specifically as a lobbying body to advance the business and industry needs of the state’s craft beer movement. Its sole purpose is to educate Austin lawmakers and support candidates and legislation who will act for the needs of independent Texas brewers both large and small, hopefully moderating the influence of the more powerful wholesale lobby. With our state’s brewing industry maturing rapidly, it is unlikely we will see a public referendum; therefore, CraftPAC has to be the voice at the legislative table for consumers and small brewers alike.

In only a few short months, Oklahoma will have less restrictive beer laws than Texas for the first time, including the coveted direct sales rights that our state’s brewers have fought so earnestly to change. Less regulation means more competition, with Oklahoma set to instantly become a strong competitor located just beyond the Red River (and their craft brewers are just as good as ours). Texans do not like to consider themselves second to anyone, so now is the time to throw our support behind CraftPAC and their efforts if we, brewing and selling as a state, do not want to be left behind. SD


Originally published for 7th Annual Big Texas Beer Fest (2018 program).

Where Does Your Beer Come From?

Dallas

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

As a craft beer fan and dedicated consumer, do you know where your beer comes from? Not the ingredients, not the brewery ownership, but culturally and conceptually?

Most of the classic beer styles we enjoy every day were created somewhere else, mostly in the Old World, and many originally individual and unique to particular regions. Before industrialization, brewers had to work with only the grains, adjuncts and water chemistries readily available to them. And until the dawn of microbiology as a science, brewers were often at the mercy of nature, too.

We enjoy a wealth of beer diversity in America, but we can claim very few formal beer styles as wholly created here. The first settlers in New England were mostly from the British Isles and Northern Europe, and brought with them an ale tradition that served as their everyday beverages long before commercialization. Citizens brewed and blended their own brown ales and porters of varying shades as their households and pubs had done for centuries prior.

Our biggest beer shift came with German immigration in the early nineteenth century, the largest ethnic influx our country has ever experienced. Magnates like Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser built empires of lagers on the heels of the steel and railroad industries, moving the balance away from ales well into the twentieth century. Ironically, “American beer” was defined for a time by uniquely German tastes.

In the twenty-first century, American beer is more an intellectual melting pot than ever before. We threw away ineffectual temperance efforts and with the rise of international travel, we have embraced old English and Scottish ales; sharp Czech pilsners; Bohemian weizen and bocks; Scandinavian sahti and Slavic kvass; soured beers from the Low Countries; bold Russian stouts and Baltic porters; and Belgian ales that are classic, experimental and ecumenical. We have adopted many beer styles as our own despite their origins, and produce distinctly American hoppy IPAs with native-born strains never known to old European brewers.

Lest we ever forget, this cultural fingerprint is still with us today. Kosmos Spoetzl built on Czech and German settlements in South Texas to brew his beers in the little town of Shiner. Pierre Celis almost singlehandedly rescued his native Belgian witbier style from extinction and became an Austin legend. Lakewood’s Wim Bens puts his personal taste on his products for Lakewood that reflect his own Belgian heritage. Fritz Rahr‘s German brewing family predates Prohibition in Wisconsin, and Dennis Wehrmann brews beers from the Franconia region where he grew up.

And the efforts have not ceased. As China, India and South American markets embrace the craft beer industry and their equivalent consumer base grows, what local malt-beverage styles have yet to be reproduced for a widespread American audience? Bradon and Yasmin Wages brought a Vietnamese bia hoi to their Malai Kitchen restaurants, and many local and national brewers continue to experiment with ingredients and influences from ginger to pulque. From Near East to Far East and everywhere between, what new immigrant brewer will bring a rich new flavor to our bars?

American craft beer is incredibly diverse, with thousands of fathers and mothers from around the world, and we are a culturally stronger nation for it. Let’s work hard not to forget that.  SD


Included in the event program for Big Texas Beer Fest, March 31-April 1, 2017

Big Texas Beer Fest at five years

BTBF-2016_logoHow long does it take a craft beer festival to mature? Do they grow and evolve on the same life-line as bars, pubs or microbreweries? Do they lead (or lag) the local consumer economy?

Last weekend, Dallas saw the fifth annual iteration of the Big Texas Beer Fest. It filled the cavernous Automobile Building at Fair Park as it has from the start with the spring weather cruelly perfect for a mostly indoor festival. Thousands of thirsty craft beer fans pressed into the fairgrounds Friday evening and all day Saturday, the decision made to wisely spread attendance over two sessions instead of packing more ticket holders into the same square footage.

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I wandered through the wide aisles early, getting my beer bearings and warming up my palate with just a sip of Goose Island‘s Bourbon County Rare, sweet and syrupy with a deep flavor reminiscent of a classic Thomas Hardy. The growling crowd of VIPs pushed at the nylon ropes, awaiting their one hour jump on entry before general admission, and that Golden Hour can be just enough time to find some of the rare and special brews hidden among the booths that will inevitably disappear quickly. It also provides a more manageable, almost convivial experience among somewhat familiar and like-minded fans before the bulk of attendees crush in, even allowing room for a skateboarding Michael Peticolas.

In just five brief years, enthusiasts and absolute amateur fest promoters Chad and Nellie Montgomery have created what is now a Dallas craft beer institution. The Big Texas Beer Fest has become not only the largest single craft beer event in North Texas but also somewhat of a sure-bet experience, as it always concludes without significant faults or troubles and manages to provide an enjoyable experience to all attendees, from beer novice to professional drinker.

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Certainly, there have been growing pains from the inception of this festival but nothing catastrophic. Ticketing and entry procedures were a big delay that first year but understandable for trying to move crowds measuring close to 5000 individuals. The air conditioning was overlooked one year and left the venue too warm, but with this particular venue and time of year that was a decision simply made too late. Water stations, ice, layout, food vendors and logistics have all been incrementally improved year after year to the benefit of attendees and representatives alike.

Small things we thought would be major headaches turned out to be nothing at all. –Nellie

This year, brewers and related vendors stretched to each end of the facility with the soundstage and bands moved to their own fenced and adjoining space outside. Early years of this festival placed them inside at the endspace of the building, dominating the limited indoor acoustics, but outside they thrive with a captive crowd surrounded by grilled aromas from circled food trucks. With the first truly great weekend weather of the year, the postcard blue sky seemed to attract as many fest-goers as did the beers inside.

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Inside saw the participation of about 150 craft breweries this year, heavy on the in-state brewers and even more so for those local to North Texas. The high-traffic DFW favorites such as Deep Ellum, Peticolas, Community and Rahr & Sons anchored the larger locations at the end of the aisles, providing more access for their surging interest and demand. Lakewood used its space and this opportunity to debut their new All Call cans, a clean, lightly malted and refreshing kölsch brewed in association with the firefighters and police support organization Guns & Hoses, and which will undoubtedly become a popular best-seller. Major national microbrands were also represented, if not with a featured booth of their own then a smaller presence manned by distributors and volunteers.

Two o’clock brought the general admission ticket holders, and the comfortable crowd of VIPs surged into a sea of people, from the ordinary to the weird. Brewery tee-shirts, pretzel necklaces, beards, funny hats and even the occasional cosplay blended among the ordinary fans, casual and daily consumers now immersed in craft beer culture for a few hours. Longer lines formed for popular breweries, and sought-after specialties were greedily drained.

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Instead of stocked tables uniformly staffed with reps pushing samples, many breweries embraced the evolving festival spirit by loosening their corporate collars. Shannon Brewing set up a small pub in their space, complete with video games. Franconia brought what has become their signature ice sculpture taps, chilling the beer with embedded tubing. Martin House hosted a small disk golf competition out of their booth adjacent to the obligatory blue “B” and “G” photo-troll display from the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

…even allowing room for a skateboarding Michael Peticolas.

Crowds continued to grow both inside and out in those hours after late arrival. The sea of people thickened into a dense mass on the inner aisles, with traffic snaking around queues and oblivious conversation pods and Untappd users logging beers on their phones. The buildup always peaks somewhere around the four o’clock hour, the drinking balance reached of early attendees and the spent just beginning to depart. Traditional for beer fests, a dropped sampling glass (historically glass but now plastic, for obvious reasons) elicits a roar from the crowd that propagates down the length of the building like a stadium wave. The collective effects of alcohol begin to show, mildly.

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A wide variety of beers were to be found, not only wide of style and flavor but across the spectrum of quality as well. The best are obvious, as any craft beer list online can gladly recount, and the worst are discretely dumped into a nearby wash bucket. But the fun is more in the unexpected: those great beers flying under the radar, relationships revealed, gems rarely hyped or newly discovered. Bitter Sisters debuted their Winter Bush, a refreshingly plain but solid Russian imperial stout, dark and roasty without bitterness, barrel aging or liquor enhancements, wholly un-messed with. Artisanal brewer Jolly Pumpkin, known for their delicate bottle-conditioned farmhouse ales, also brews great traditional American styles under the North Peak Brewing label. And On Rotation made a very unique and tasty Jalapeño Saison infused with cucumber — it’s weird, but it works.

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It was also a nice touch to include local brewpubs such as Dallas’ native Humperdinks, brewers from the local California-chain Gordon Biersch locations in Dallas and Plano, and even Irving’s Twin Peaks breastaurant (now brewing on-site), talented brewers all but of a status and caliber often overlooked or dismissed at fests such as these. Disappointly, the acclaimed Asian bistro-brewer Malai Kitchen was expected but absent, no doubt victim to a spring weekend overstuffed with competing and conflicting food-themed events around the Metroplex.

I managed to talk with Nellie briefly during the event, and asked about the most important thing she and Chad learned with now five years of craft beer festival planning under their belt. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “Small things we thought would be major headaches turned out to be nothing at all.” SD