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is local “better”? (ie, the reason many great beers don’t travel far)

There’s a reason many of the critically acclaimed west coast beers can’t be found on the east coast. Quality control. While I am constantly hearing about Russian River Brewing Co and their world-beating Pliny the Elder double IPA as well as their Blind Pig IPA, and equally regarded line of Belgian and barrel-aged beers, I cannot find any in New England. I once emailed Russian River through their webpage, inquiring about where they distribute and if there was any plan to come as far as this coast. I was happy to actually get a response, and not from someone in their social networking/marketing division, but from the owner and brewmaster himself, Vinnie Cilurzo.

In the craft brew world, Vinnie’s earned a little bit of a god status, but the beauty is, I get the feeling he’s the last one to let that kind of thing go to his head. He explained that they are predominantly distributed on the west coast, but some of their cork-finished beers (like the popular Damnation plus one or two of their barrel aged brews, depending on release dates and what stores still have in stock) to Philly, but that’s about it. Why not distribute more widely when something like Pliny medals in competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup year after year? Simple. Some beers are best fresh, especially hoppy, aromatic beers, in which hop aroma can fade over time. Also, and this is the big issue facing almost any craft brewer, once it’s shipped, and out of the control of the brewery, there’s no way to assure good quality control practices. A pallet of cases could end up at a hot loading dock and sit for days. It could end up at the local BevMo or other retailer and sit in the back, warm, for a long period before it’s even put on the shelves or in the fridges to be purchased.

So while we can find some great beers from CA here in MA (Sierra Nevada and Stone for example) it typically requires a lot of extra steps to assure it travels well. Sierra is HUGE compared to most craft breweries, and they have invested in their process (their green initiatives are very impressive). But smaller craft breweries are less likely to have the money to assure freshness of their product going from one coast to the other. Now, we see some of the larger craft breweries opening second breweries, like Sierra is doing in Mills River, North Carolina. This will ensure not only more beer, but fresher beer, to this part of the country. While I have always loved a Sierra Pale Ale here in MA, about 5 years ago I was in San Francisco on business and found it on tap. Now I wasn’t doing side by side comparisons or anything obviously, but I swear that was the best Sierra Pale I’ve ever had. There’s something to be said for local, fresh beer.

And now, as craft brew continues to bite into the overall beer market, small breweries are popping up everywhere. Homebrewers have much more knowledge and access to quality ingredients than ever before, and many are making the jump to commercial brewing. This means many more options to beer drinkers, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s all great beer. Local and fresh means only that. But hey, the good ones will earn more fans and those that are just ok will have to either improve or whither and die. All I know is that competition leads to better beer.

A few of my personal New England favorites:
Mayflower: their IPA is more balanced and British than the big West Coast hop bombs that have been taking over for years and that’s what makes it stand out to me; and their seasonal Spring Hop is a delicious amber, out of style due to it’s added hop flavor and aroma.
Notch Brewing: Chris Lohring focuses on session beers: low alcohol so you can pop a few open and not regret it later. But the real trick is keeping the ABV down and yet still having big flavor. Chris has his regular line up of session ale and a Czech Pils (love the pils!), but is constantly improvising, offering small one-offs in collaboration brews, or less common styles like his recent Tafelbier.
Wachusett: A couple WPI grads started this brewery in 1993, back when “craft beer” was “microbrew”. They’ve got a solid local following. I steered away for a while (fruit beers make it hard for me to take someone seriously, and their blueberry ale is one of their biggest sellers) until I was at Fenway last year with my wife for a Sox game, and was happy to see some craft brew taps in addition to the BMC offerings). I tried their Green Monsta IPA and was really impressed. Not too big (6% abv) but full of flavor, while staying pretty balanced. It has a bit of rye in the grain bill too, which I’m finding I really like.
Others of note:
Baxter (ME), Smuttynose (NH), Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project (MA), Allagash (ME)
Obviously, there are many more local breweries producing beer these days. Not all are great. Some have been overly influenced by DogFish Head’s success of really odd recipes and feel the need to create new rather than perfect their process with traditional styles. But that’s another thread…

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