Blog Entries by Jeff Cioletti

Mile-High Musings

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: beer

Those who have attended the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) over the past several years will know that the Brewers Association-presented event has grown into much more than the four tasting sessions that accommodate 49,000 brew seekers over a three-day period. It’s become a news-making platform for craft brewers and even the big brewers that extends beyond the walls of the Colorado Convention Center to the rest of Denver and in many cases well beyond the city limits. As always, it was a whirlwind few days for me as, like always, I tried to be three or four places at once so as not to miss anything. While that’s against the laws of physics, I was able to pick up a few tidbits.

Community Support
GABF took place barely a month after the devastating floods in the festival’s home region and the beer community banded together to help neighbors rebuild. The festival had a specially designated flood relief donation area, headed up by two of Colorado’s leading craft brewers, Oskar Blues and Left Hand. Both earlier this year set up their own charitable organizations designed to give back to the community and help in crises such as these natural disasters. Left Hand in May introduced the Left Hand Brewing Foundation and Oskar Blues in September launched Oskar Blues CAN’d Aid Foundation.

Wholesale Honors
Congratulations are in order for Mechanicville, N.Y.-based DeCrescente Distributing Co., which the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) and Brewers Association selected as Craft Beer Distributor of the Year. The two organizations presented the award jointly at GABF, noting that DeCrescente is well on its way to achieving its goal of 20 percent craft share in its local market by 2018.

Here Be Dragons
Preceded by the type of fanfare, mystery and intrigue reserved for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Cooperstown, N.Y.’s Brewery Ommegang finally revealed on night one (Thursday, Oct. 10) of GABF what the latest addition of its Game of Thrones line would be. Fire and Blood Red Ale will be the third offering in the line officially licensed by HBO to tie-in with its hit series based on George R.R. Martin’s epic “A Song of Ice & Fire” book series. It will debut through Ommegang’s nationwide distributor network in spring 2014, coinciding with season four of “Game of Thrones” on HBO. Ommegang offered GABF attendees a sneak peek at the Fire & Blood’s artwork, which incorporates the series’ three dragons: Drogon, Rhaegal and Visarion.

Life After Death
Finally, I have to give a shout-out to Shmaltz Brewing Co. founder Jeremy Cowan who was showcasing He’Brew Death of a Contract Brewer black IPA. The beer marks Shmaltz’s transition this summer from 100 percent contract-brewed to running its own brick-and-mortar brewery in Clifton Park, N.Y. It’s been quite an eventful year for Shmaltz. Shortly after opening the brewery, Shmaltz announced the sale of its Coney Island brand to Alchemy & Science, a subsidiary of Boston Beer. 

I'm Making a Spirited Plea

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: alcohol

I was walking the floor at the Holiday Buying Show in New York, jotting down notes and sampling a few brands when I was approached by a woman with a clipboard and a handful of Japanese beverage brochures. She must have had a keen eye for media as the word “press” on my attendee badge would have been barely visible from more than a handful of feet.  “Would you like to taste Japanese spirits?” she asked me. Of course I would.

I was intrigued and impressed by her assertiveness—I’ve been to literally hundreds of trade shows and beyond a few stray hired hands unenthusiastically handing out postcard-size flyers promoting particular exhibitors, marketers rarely venture out beyond the confines of their booths to proactively increase traffic at their stands. As I learned when I reached the array of saké producers at the Japanese beverage alcohol pavilion, shochu marketers are really determined to broaden awareness of their venerable spirit to U.S. consumers and beyond.

I definitely have had my share of exposure to the drink. A few years ago I spent an evening at a shochu bar in Tokyo, where a local gentleman, who was eager to practice his English explained that younger Japanese (legal drinking age) consumers are moving away from saké—something they view as their parents’ drink—and toward shochu. That’s part of the reason why there’s such an opportunity in the U.S. for sake because it still has relatively low awareness and market penetration here and virtually nowhere left to go on its home islands.

One of the challenges stateside saké marketers have been facing is a lack of distinguishable branding—there’s a great deal of visual homogeneity among many of the brands on my local store’s shelves (not to mention, difficult-to-pronounce names for Westerners), despite the fact that there are amazing variations in flavor. As I mentioned in a previous column, that’s starting to change as marketers bring dynamic design elements and simple, memorable names to their products. There are similar hurdles for shochu marketers. But I do think that will change for shochu too, as importers ramp up their marketing efforts and continue to figure out how to market in the U.S., beyond the specialty shop and Japanese restaurant or izakaya.

Of course, bottles need to contain accessible products and I’m convinced that once more legal-drinking-age consumers sample shochu they’ll be converted. On the rocks most are remarkably drinkable with tremendous flavor complexity. Those made from barley provide a good bridge for whiskey drinkers. Those made from rice are good for those who’ve already discovered sake, as many of the aromatic elements are reminiscent of their rice-based cousin. And then for something truly unique and delightfully complex, there’s shochu distilled from sweet potatoes. Meanwhile, rum drinkers might find brown sugar-based shochu appealing.

I hope to see shochu—and the hotbed for shochu production, the Japanese island of Kyushu—represented at a larger number of industry trade shows with even more foot traffic from curious distributors and retailers. Kanpai! 

Going Native

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: spirits

How can you not be enamored of a state that has more barrels of an aging spirit in it than it does people? That’s what drives my newfound love affair with the Commonwealth of Kentucky—Louisville in particular. I recently took a trip out to the Bluegrass State to explore a little bit of bourbon country, as well as Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. I had always managed to idealize and romanticize the region in my mind, like I do a lot of places very beverage centric. But I have to say it really lived up to my expectations, and them some.

I was in awe of the sprawling operation that is the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky, with its industrial architecture and equipment that appears to have been largely untouched—save for some automated control and monitoring stations—since the period immediately following the repeal of Prohibition. But I also enjoyed the more intimate affair that is the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, where the scent of aging bourbon in charred-oak barrels inside tin warehouses knows no equal.

The bourbon renaissance has enabled 77-year-old Willett to resume distilling activities for the first time since the early ’80s (It was still aging and bottling in the interim, just not distilling at its Bardstown site).

Those were the dark ages for bourbon. The spirit had been seen as “your grandfather’s drink.” The spirits market as a whole was on a similar downward trend a couple of decades ago.  

But thanks in part to the premiumization trend, those days are very much over. Super-premium whiskey has been helping pull the spirits category up to the tune of 3 percent year-on-year. Whiskey alone was up nearly 7 percent last year, thanks not only to the single malt Scotches and Irish whiskeys, but to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as well. The American offerings’ volume was up nearly 10.5 percent in 2012, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Super-premium spirits in general enjoyed the greatest gain of all the price segments, up nearly 9 percent last year.

There’s no better time than now for consumers to celebrate bourbon and there’s really no better place to do it than Kentucky. No other region of the U.S. is more closely aligned with a beverage alcohol product than Kentucky is with bourbon. And before every California wine maker cries foul, I argue this because the varietals that are produced there, by and large, did not originate in the U.S. They don’t call bourbon “America’s native spirit” for nothing.

And no other American city showcases its signature beverage better than Louisville. Five years ago, the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau created the Urban Bourbon Trail, a network of bars and restaurants in which one can enjoy the native spirit, for just that purpose. There are currently 27 stops (and counting) across Louisville.

It’s clear that bourbon’s time has (once again) arrived and not just in Kentucky. The Urban Bourbon Trail is really just part of the global bourbon trail as aspirational and curious consumers worldwide embark on their own journey.    
 

Drink-In Movies

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: alcohol

When it comes to the beer-versus-wine-versus-spirits image wars, one need look no further than the local multiplex or the nearest home theater system. Wine traditionally has been put on a romantic pedestal with sprawling establishing shots of lush vineyard landscapes and dreamy little picnics in those idyllic settings, punctuated with clinking glasses of pinot noir. Even when the lead characters are severely emotionally and morally compromised, as in everyone’s favorite go-to grape movie, “Sideways,” wine still comes out of it with its religiously exalted status intact. But for every “Sideways” or “Bottle

Shock,” there’s a “Take This Job and Shove It” (I know I’m dating myself here) and “Beerfest.” Beer is relegated to the role of social lubricant for redneck layabouts and over-imbibing fratboys.

And you can forget about spirits. Anytime characters drink Scotch or bourbon on screen, they’re usually slumped over a bar, sipping to forget personal crises. Or they’re just plain evil.

Dennis Hopper’s “Pabst Blue Ribbon” exclamation may be the more iconic “Blue Velvet” quote, but one of the first lines Hopper’s sadistically depraved Frank Booth utters in David Lynch’s classic is “Where’s my bourbon?” Not exactly a clip the Kentucky Department of Travel is using in its tourism videos.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What about ‘Sex & the City’ and its impact on the modern cocktail culture.” I’m not talking about mixed drinks that are so diluted by fruit flavoring and pretty colors that that the base spirit barely expresses itself. I’m talking about connoisseur-oriented distillates, enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in a carefully crafted classic drink that retains the notes and nuances of the high-proof liquid.   

Then you’ll say, “What about ‘Mad Men’ and the classic cocktail mini-renaissance it inspired?” Well, if you haven’t realized by season six that Don Draper is a functioning alcoholic with a therapist’s smorgasbord of issues, then I don’t think you actually have AMC.

Filmmakers (and TV show runners) just don’t seem to be capturing spirits and beer with the same flattering lens and lighting that they are wine.

But there is hope. I recently saw Ken Loach’s “Angel’s Share,” which combines a story about the strife of the Scottish working class with a bit of a mini “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist and an absolute love letter to Scotland’s most venerated product. A must see, especially if you’re in the Scotch whisky business.

On the malt-and-hops front, next month brings the release of the indie romantic dramedy “Drinking Buddies.” Having already seen it, I must say, it really nails the vibe of the craft beer industry. Its main characters work in a Chicago brewery—Revolution, a real craft outfit whose name wasn’t changed for the film—and the opening title sequence featuring enormous sacks of malt, mash tuns, hop pellets, fermenting tanks, kegs and, of course, a delicious brew being poured is like porn for beer geeks.

Let’s hope that these two films are signs that the tide is slowly turning and that the cinema’s liquid love affair becomes a bit more inclusive.

Savor & the City

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: beer, brewing, craft beer, hops, alcohol, brew

The Brewers Association traded the Beltway for Broadway for the sixth edition of Savor, its craft beer/food pairing extravaganza, hoping the one-year detour to the Big Apple would boost craft’s profile in the eyes of the largest media market in the U.S. and, arguably, the world.

The annual rite of late spring had made its home at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum—save for its inaugural edition, which was at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

“Being in New York puts craft brewers on center stage,” Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz told Beverage World during the event at Manhattan’s adjoining Metropolitan Pavilion and Altman Building. “In D.C. we had Brewers on an amazing stage, but New York is a great home for a year and we’re reaching a different audience.”

The organization already had hosted 6,500 at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in the nation’s capital in late March and decided one event in the first half of 2013 in the District was enough. Savor had provided an opportunity for brewers to meet with their legislators, but CBC fulfilled that objective this year.

 “Why not come to the biggest media and food market?” Herz added.

Missing from last month’s event were the National Building Museum’s stately, atrium-style high ceilings and towering columns, but the classy, low-lit cocktail party vibe was still intact at the New York venue. As was the foodie’s paradise of culinary creations prepared under the direction of chef Adam Dulye, designed to pair with everything from a pilsner to a Russian imperial stout.

But despite New York City’s cred as a media and gastronomic center, the city still lags behind cities like Portland, Ore, Philadelphia and Chicago when it comes to being considered a “beer town.” That’s been gradually changing, especially with the efforts of established locals like The Brooklyn Brewery—the No. 11 craft brewer in the country this year celebrates its 25th anniversary—and Sixpoint Brewery. And a few new ones are opening in the city each year. Additionally, distributors like Manhattan Beer and L.Knife-owned Union Beer have been leading wholesalers of craft. New craft-centric beer bars seem to be opening every month as well; a local organization has created the Good Beer Seal to recognize such destinations.

Still, New York’s been a tricky market, especially when you consider how much competition there is for the drinker’s attention. And, of course, space isn’t something that’s in particular abundance in New York City.

Many craft breweries outside the region—including larger, established ones like Savor supporting brewery New Belgium—have yet to enter the market.

John Bryant, co-founder of Spokane, Wash.-based No-Li Brewhouse had considered the market, but has been hanging back, largely because of packaging issues.

“We were looking at New York and we were advised early on that the 22-ounce bottle package, which is what we’re in, wasn’t really relevant to the city,” Bryant explained as he poured from those same bottles of No-Li’s Jet Star Imperial IPA and Wrecking Ball Imperial Stout. “The were saying a lot of the smaller stores, up and down the street, are carrying six-packs, but they weren’t doing a lot of 22s on the shelf….But we’ve since been learning that with the 22, people are actually starting to experiment more.”

Bryant said he hoped Savor would attract a new level of attention. “Savor is in the capital of media, food and culture,” he said. “Boston’s great and North Carolina’s great, but New York’s where trends start.”

Eugene, Ore.-based Ninkasi Brewing Co. isn’t available in New York either, but part-owner and founding brewer Jamie Floyd was sampling Believer imperial red ale and Tricerahops imperial IPA, with an eye on the bigger, national picture. “It’s kind of more for the broader, national exposure,” Floyd revealed. We also spend a lot of time as a company working on food and beer pairings.”

As for entering the New York market, “We never say never,” Floyd said. “We’ve talked about it but we’re not looking for East Coast distribution at this point. We’re in the process of a $20 million expansion right now and that will allow us to continue to fill in more of the West Coast.”

One West Coast brewery that is available in the city is Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail, though it took about 24 of the company’s 26-year history to finally get there. Founder and CEO Irene Firmat was pouring a pilsner from Full Sail’s LTD series and its Pub Series extra special bitter. “[Savor] is a celebration of beer and food and taking seriously, but still having a whole lot of fun,” Firmat said. Full Sail’s Savor participation extends back to the first edition in D.C. back in 2008. So which host city does Firmat prefer?

“I’m a native New Yorker,” she said, “so I’m a little biased.”