Thursday, May 15, 2008

American Craft Beer Week - The Collective

Even though i catch myself doing it from time to time, i really dislike using the term ‘scene’ to describe any community of people linked together by common ideas. To me, it makes the group in question seem transient or passing. To get to the point of even being lumped under such a term though, there has to be enough support and investment to build the community mindset. So this is why I choose the term Collective. It takes people who are there for the love of something, it takes people who are there to further that something’s potential, and it takes people who are there because they realize that the strength of unity is no accident.

The Craft Beer Collective is quite impressive. There is a central goal or ideal that lingers over every corner of activity within the craft beer world. On some ends are the relentless collectors or completists looking to gain access to everything they can by any means necessary. On other ends are those looking to get as locally involved as they can, showing appreciation for what their local brewers or distributors do and will volunteer themselves to the cause. Other ends find groups and clubs, sometimes quite specialized, who gather together under a common understanding and use power in numbers to bind themselves and their goals. Others just float, they like to experience a little bit of everything and find that craft beer attracts a lot of friendly, like minded people who are a lot of fun to just sit and have a beer with aside from stigma or expectation.

Hovering above all of this are the tools of unity, the references and maps that are shared uniformly by those who enjoy craft beer and those who making a living from it. Some are as simple as a website, magazine, or newspaper and others are events that can serve as a proving ground or marketing exhibition for all to revel in and experience.

The collective mind though has one common tie that binds all of its components. Everyone is here for beer that’s made honestly from the best ingredients in the world by the best brewers in our country. Support is at the forefront as the craft beer world realizes amidst all the fun that it is still the little guy. The collective has arrived with and achieved greater understanding of what support systems are all about; simply by our placement in the grand scheme of things, we’ll always have an eye over our shoulder for Goliath.

So what makes the world go round in this community of craft beer brewers and drinkers? Well, a whole lot of stuff.

Most importantly, there are so many breweries and brewpubs that go to great lengths to build relationships with their customers. They throw them parties and special events, they invite them into their breweries to help out, they use them as a test market. Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione writes in his book, Brewing Up A Business, “We were fortunate to have some really savvy, beer-drinking regulars who were more than happy to give us their opinions on which beers worked and which ones didn’t. We would tweak the recipes to satisfy our own palates and those of the customers who understood the kinds of beers we were trying to brew. They shared with us what they were looking for in a beer, and we tried to educate them on the kinds of beer we were hoping to brew. These regular customers and the staff and Dogfish Head learned a lot from each other.”

The communication between those making the products and those buying them is extremely tight knit for an industry that has begun to post multi-billion dollar retail sales numbers in recent years. The connection and interaction is kind of amazing in the face of those numbers.

Falling right in line with this, competition between craft brewers is rarely perceived as something more than a bit of fun. In a market with so many options, it would seem that everyone would be clawing at shelf space and sales, but many craft brewers are quick to note that everyone is the little guy in the face of the macro breweries. Craft brewers support each other, brew together, offer up equipment at good prices when they expand, and even hang out together. Despite the thousands of different stories and backgrounds that make up the people working in the craft beer industry, there’s one spirit common to them all and it’s one worth celebrating through their hard work and their products.

For those with all the other jobs there are to have in the world, there’s a world of possibilities available to them and they’re all taken advantage of to the fullest. From weekly trips or after work stops to the local brewpub and beer bar to cross country treks for brewery tours and beer unavailable on their home turf, craft beer drinkers let little stand in their way.

Clubs support the industry greatly whether they are formally driving towards a certain goal or simply giving people an excuse to get together. They are varied far and wide: While some gather to brew their own beer, others gather to trade beer from all over the country as they sample and tell tales of how they’ve gotten some of the rarest beers in America. Other groups seek to educate in a relaxed atmosphere and others simply want to exhaust the possibilities of their city’s available barstools. Many brewpubs and bars are quite accomodating towards the quirks these clubs may have (this includes clientele).

It is easy to stake this claim with no research done whatsoever: the biggest number of people flock to the quickest source and get the majority of the information. Beer Advocate is the epicenter of craft beer’s informational and social needs. It is a database, a meeting place, and an educational kiosk where one can get quick answers to a ton of beer related questions. Jason and Todd Alstrom have created a place for beer lovers, beer geeks, and beer inquisitors to have their voices heard and questions answered. Aside from 35+ specialized message boards, one can easily find information on beer styles, serving and pairing suggestions, events, venue information, and complete offering histories of just about every brewery in the world. Plus if you ever wanted to know what some random dude in Alaska thinks about a beer, you can look up his thoughts on any beer he cares to place a rating on.

Likewise, you’ve got Rate Beer, another great resource site. With an organizational bent that’s a bit different than Beer Advocate, Rate Beer is a great reference. With breakdowns of states and countries where you can look up your local distributors or brewpubs, the site is a definite one-stop source for tons of valuable information. The more you hop around the site the more you will find including homebrew recipes, a glossary, and some well thought out articles.

From homebrewing to news and tasting notes, the craft beer airwaves are full of voices and the sounds of glasses being filled. Podcasts and webcasts pop up all the time to the delight of cubicle workers from coast to coast. Simply searching through google will turn up a ton of options and digging through the archives of many different shows will always yield some very interesting and relevant surprises.

Radio shows include:

Basic Brewing Radio
Craft Beer Radio
The Good Beer Show
Big Foamy Head
The Sunday Session
The Jamil Show

The internet even has a hub for its pros to hang out in. is a comprehensive resource for the craft beer industry to get business ideas and tips, buy or sell equipment, seek out help, advice, and employees, and discuss industry trends and issues. Featuring articles, message boards, and classified ads as well as a database of suppliers and vendors, a lot can be learned about the business by just reading and watching.

While you’re online you may as well check in with the zillion beer bloggers worldwide. With everyone from brewers to bar backs blogging away, if you want to get up to speed on what’s happening in with a brewery, country, city, or specific brand of beer, you can find it on a blog. Really easily. Some bloggers are high profile and give readers a glimpse of things that they’d only hear stories of well after the fact, while others are dedicated to reporting on one topic and one topic only, but do so everyday. You’d really be hard pressed to have an interest in something beer related and not find a blogger talking about it. Blogs are also being used as a link between breweries and customers or bars and patrons, it’s a great bridge that doesn’t require the purchase of webspace or a webmaster. I personally have my own little rotation of blogs that I’ll check each day just to see who’s talking about what. My favorite blog right now is Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin. He posts so much great content and has so many great links that he is a must see.

Other great beer blogs (there are so many):

Charlie Papazian
The Lost Abbey
Appellation Beer
Seen Through A Glass
A Good Beer Blog
The Brew Lounge
Liquid Diet Online
Russian River
Rick Lyke
The Beer Lass
Hair of the Dog Dave

So you like to take your information on the train or to the dentist’s office, do you? Not a problem, some of the most well known voices of Craft Beer are all tangled up in the monthly and bi-monthly beer publications that serve our entire nation. From the many brewspapers that localize their news and keep entire regions up to speed to the nationally distributed magazines that feature great stories and interviews, there is certainly something in print for every level of the craft beer appreciation. There are trade magazines that go directly to the members of the industry and there are mags that only deal with brewing beer at home, both of which include work from writers who are quite active in many other parts and segments of the industry.

From publications like All About Beer, Celebrator, Draft, & Beer Advocate to Zymurgy and Brew Your Own to New Brewer, to the brewspapers like Brewing News and Ale Street News there is a need for depth and diversity when it comes to writing about beer. Some of the industry’s finest writers about beer are able to service all of these different types of publications and more while running their own blogs and actually getting out of the house for a beer once in a while. Some beer writers names you should know are: Stephen Beaumont, Stan Hieronymus , Lew Bryson, Don Russell, Andy Crouch, Garrett Oliver, and Carolyn Smagalski and Bob Skilnik and Maureen Ogle. Between them they’ve written books, articles, and torn through cyberspace in addition to leading lectures, discussions, tastings, and beer dinners. Among them there are very few topics that have gone undiscussed.

Any talk of beer writing calls for a mention of Michael Jackson. He will always be The Beer Writer and The Beer Hunter. Mr. Jackson invented beer writing and always wrote with passion and care, inspiring more people in the beer world than could be realized. His passing last year was quite sad, but if ever there was a test of the craft beer collective’s unity, they certainly passed, sending him off honorably and with much praise.

So when do we party? All the darn time actually. There are beer festivals, beer gatherings, beer dinners, and promo events daily in the United States. Now whether or not one is right around the corner that’s a different story, but with the average American (I guess I can consider myself to be one of those?) living within 10 miles of a brewery, options are usually more than they are less. Bigger events like Great American Beer Festival, Savor, Extreme Beer Fest, and American Craft Brew Fest attract people from all over the world, while most states have a bunch of festival that attract breweries from across the country. There are also many smaller festivals held in cities throughout the year that celebrate specific beer styles, wood aged beers, and the release of yearly offerings like, most recently, Maibocks.

If all this is any indication of the power in numbers craft beer has as an industry, keep in mind it is by far the minority when it comes to beer production and sales. This works to craft beer’s advantage in many ways, but still as the industry and popularity continues to grow each year it is interesting to see how each part of the collective grows with it. There’s room for everyone and some of the best things are surely yet to come. So as this weeklong celebration of American Craft Beer gets closer to its end, why not take a look ourselves and be proud of the different ways we’ve contributed to its success. I consider myself lucky to have had the limited experiences that I have had and look forward to many, many more in the years to come.

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