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The Realities of Expansion; A Look at the Firestone Walker & Duvel Partnership

The big news coming out of the craft beer industry this past week was the reported acquisition of California craft beer heroes Firestone Walker by Belgian beer giant, Duval.

Turns out these first reports were a bit erroneous. David Walker spent a fair amount of time attempting to clear the air about the deal between the two companies and to break it down to its simplest form, the two have entered into a partnership agreement that will allow Firestone Walker to increase their brewing capabilities and begin to cast a wider net in national distribution.

It sounds simple enough. But it poses an interesting dilemma for the surging craft beer industry, how do you handle expansion?

Time for a disclaimer; I am not an economist, financial planner or marketing wizard. That means I certainly do not know the best answer, however, what is most interesting is there doesn’t appear to be one answer. Many breweries seem to be finding new and unique ways the expand the appeal of their brands and entice new customers to try their luscious libations.

Here in San Diego we are all bearing witness to the exponential growth of the industry. Not only are more new breweries continuing to open, we are also seeing a surge in established local craft beer breweries opening satellite tasting rooms around the county. Mike Hess Brewing recently announced plans for a third tasting room to soon open in Ocean Beach. Culture Brewing, out of Solana Beach, also has a second location in Ocean Beach. North County brewers Belching Beaver and Rip Current have opened satellite tasting rooms in North Park while local legends Ballast Point is on number four, Stone Brewing is at five and Karl Strauss has eight brewpubs in Southern California.

Every successful business wants to make money and get bigger. Make no mistake, the people who start breweries may have gotten into the industry for the love of beer, but once you put your livelihood and the livelihood of your entire family on the line, you need that business to be success, nobody is making craft beer with the intention of simply breaking even. So what are the ways we have seen craft brewers grow their business and their brands over the past few years?

Sierra Nevada opened a second brewing facility in Mills River, North Carolina. Lagunitas also opened a second location in Chicago, Illinois and have announced a third brewing location for Azusa, California. Green Flash has broken ground in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Stone has done the same in Richmond, Virginia and I continue to hear rumors swirling about that Ballast Point will soon announce plans to open a brewery in Austin, Texas.

This method of expansion is obviously not applicable to smaller craft brewers. This is what the giants of the craft beer are able to do by being so well established and having developed a loyal following across the country. For these companies, it is all about long term planning. Not only will these location cut down on the expenses associated with transporting beer across the country, it also addresses what could be a serious issue in the future here in California; water. These other states have access to large reservoirs of water that will help make expansion even more feasible in the future.

Then there is the method that caused a huge stir in the craft beer community in San Diego with some effects still being felt, the time when Alpine Beer Company sold to Green Flash Brewing. It was something we had not seen yet, a craft brewer buying another craft brewer. In this instance, Alpine was not necessarily looking to expand, but the demand for their beer was so high and the deal allowed them to not only expand their tasting room and still brew their own beers at their East County San Diego location, but it got all their employees health insurance and other benefits they could not provided before the acquisition. Now, Green Flash can brew up larger batches of Alpine Beer for the masses here in California and pretty soon nationwide.

Another method of expansion is one I am loathe to even address so we will make it short and sweet and never bring it up again. You can sell your brewery to Inbev or SABMiller or one of the other giant conglomerates from around the world. But we all know that is a terrible idea…I’m looking at you 10 Barrel and Elysian.

Initially, the above method is what most feared for Firestone Walker.

This is not Duvel’s first foray into a partnership with a craft beer brewer. Over the past several years they have acquired Cooperstown, New York brewery Ommegang and most recently Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing. Duvel, a family owned and operated company, has stayed relatively hands-off with both, allowing them to continue doing what they do best. Now both breweries have access to more resources and help distribute their beers on a far larger scale, as we are seeing first hand with Boulevard who has recently made their way into the San Diego market.

In several interviews David Walker has elaborated that this is more of a case of Duvel investing in Firestone Walker to aid with their expansion plans. If that is one hundred percent accurate I cannot say with any certainty at this point. Since both companies are independently owned, the financial terms or the deal were not made public. You can read what Mr. Walker told TheFullPint.com and BrewPublic.com right here.

It also should be noted that Duvel is not without faults of their own, especially in their home country of Belgium where it is a contentious fact that Duvel is known for forcing bars into contracts that must be honored even in the event that new owners take over. This became a very public issue for the owners of Moeder Lambic which fought and won a battle with Duvel in order to help ensure that tap handles would be available to smaller breweries that they wanted to support.

While I cannot claim that what Firestone Walker did is what I would have done, it is most certainly the option they considered to be the best for them and the people who work for them. The fact is that Firestone Walker is the 16th largest craft brewer in the country, but a whopping 80% of the beer they sell stays in California. While math was never my strong suit, I know that only leaves 20% for 49 other states. If they want their beer in the hands of more consumers, and since we already established that making money is the whole point of a business, this is clearly what they felt was the best option for their brewery. The most important issue for me is the status of genius Head Brewer Matt Brynildson, as long as he is happy, and all indications are that he is, and he stays at the helm of the ship, odds are very high that I will continue to enjoy the beers of Firestone Walker for years to come, and with any luck I will be able to do it in any state in the country and possibly any country in the world.

Cheers,

Tom


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November 10th; The day Green Flash Brewing bought Alpine Beer Co.

It’s a Monday morning in America’s Finest City and its mega craft beer event, San Diego Beer Week, is in full swing. Most of us craft beer enthusiasts are contemplating which of the dozens of fantastic and fun events lined up all over the county to attend. Then something happens. News from the craft beer industry breaks and San Diego beer drinkers do a collective double take and everything in our world of hand crafted brews comes to a screeching halt at the news and we let out a gasp of “What with the what what?”

Green Flash Brewing has bought Alpine Beer Company.

Honestly, it took me several long minutes for me to wrap my head around the very notion of it. While it’s certainly not unheard of for a craft brewer to acquire a smaller craft brewer, Samuel Adams has been doing it for a while now (even if you don’t consider them to be craft any longer), the idea of it happening here in San Diego took me by surprise.

As is no longer shocking, after a quick perusing of my social media feeds, there was a lot of mixed reaction. Some people liked it, some didn’t. Some out right hated it while others where just hoping the beer wouldn’t be affected. I think if the announcement wasn’t coming on the heels of the news of Anheuser-Busch purchasing Portland craft beer legend 10 Barrel Brewing this past week, the news might not have met with such diverse reactions.

I think a lot of assumptions were made initially, and hopefully now that the shock has worn off, people see this for what it is, two craft beer companies coming together to make each of their brands stronger and increase their odds of continued success in a beer market that is, with the exception of craft beer sales, flat or in decline depending on whose numbers you are looking at.

After reading several articles on the sale and the official press release, which you can find here, it’s clear that this is a move the will benefit both companies and craft beer drinkers alike.

Green Flash has an incredible line-up of beers, excellent marketing strategies and well thought out expansions plans, including a new facility which has recently broken ground in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Their larger production facility will mean that Alpine beers, long coveted and argued to be the best IPA’s in the world, will now be available to more people. How can this be considered a bad thing?

On the surface, it may look to some as if this is like Anheuser-Busch, a giant corporation gobbling up the little guys in an effort to stop the competition. I believe there is nothing further from the truth. What A.B. is doing is an attempt to get a foot hold in a market that they have been boxed out of by purchasing companies like 10 Barrel, Goose Island and others that already have a foot in the door.

The situation with Green Flash and Alpine is totally different. For one thing, Green Flash helped to create the market they are in. To the people who run the company, craft beer isn’t about competition but about comradery and the belief that great beer brings great people together. Alpine Beer Company on the other hand, has enjoyed immense popularity, particularly for their murder’s row of IPA’s like Duet, Nelson, Hoppy Birthday, Exponential Hoppiness and others. However, the bottom line has always been that they are a small brewery in east county San Diego and the demand for their beers continues to outpace their ability to brew it all fast enough. An experiment earlier in the year, where Alpine allowed Green Flash to brew their IPA’s meet with Alpine head brewer & co-founder Pat McIIhenny’s approval. One could speculate that this was the genesis of the idea for the new ownership arrangement.

Alpine Beer Company will still be run the same way. The labels on the bottle will be the same. The beer in the bottles will be the same. Pat will still be making the beer to his exacting standards. The small brewery and brewpub will still be open in Alpine, the plans for a new, larger restaurant are still in the works. The biggest change will be the volume of beer made and where it’s made at; Green Flash. This opens the door to wider distribution throughout California and I’d guess it’s only a matter of time before 49 other states will get their chance at some of the best beer in the world. And perhaps most importantly, the roughly 20 employees who work at Alpine will now have the opportunity for health insurance, 401K and other perks that the small scale brewery was unable to provide before now.

While a tiny part of me is sad that the Alpine Beer Company that was something of San Diego secret is now done and over with, the rest of me is very excited for the the rest of California, and the country to now be able to get their hands on what I consider to be the finest craft beers on the planet, because if you’ve not had Nelson IPA from Alpine, you are truly missing out on something special.

Cheers,

Tom

 

 


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It’s the Great Pumpkin (Beers), Charlie Brown!

It’s that time of year when the temperature begins to drop and the cool, crispness in the air signals the change of season from summer to fall as the leaves begin to turn color and sail to the ground where they wait for us to rake them up into big piles for the children of the neighborhood to jump into.

Well, maybe not in Southern California.a97bf1d1-794a-401e-a8dc-16a9dfe23805

October in San Diego usually means odd pumpkin patches in the middle of parking lots with straw on the ground. Costume shops in every strip mall that has an unoccupied building and lunatics who try to tell you that cold cider is just as good as hot cider. Savages I tell you!

But what we don’t have in the way of the more iconic definition of the fall season, we more than make up for in our efforts to evoke that fall feeling of cool nights and crisp air with some truly wonderful pumpkin ales made by some of the best craft brewers in San Diego, and for this list, one who is slightly further away.

Much like last week’s post on specialty ingredient hibiscus, pumpkin is something that can easily be done wrong. It’s also easy to look at the absolute flood of pumpkin related items and say that pumpkin beer is simply a gimmick to get money from suckers who worship at the house of gourd.

The question has been asked to me on several occasions; can pumpkin beers be considered a true craft beer? Or do you lose credibility because of the perception that pumpkin beers are merely a fad? It’s a question I like to answer with another question; Is it brewed by a craft brewer? Than the answer is yes, it’s craft beer. However, if you want to delve into the question further, I will happily elaborate. The beer must be carefully crafted to be something unique, not something that is simply allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon added to a fermentor. The design of the beer has to be really strong and showcase what real pumpkin flavor can bring to the world of craft beer.

That being said, allow me to present four craft beer that might make you rethink the way you look at pumpkin beer.

Coronado Brewing Company: Punk’in Drublic Imperial Pumpkin Ale.2014-10-08 18.39.43

The beer opens with a rich orange/amber color. lightly carbonated. The nose is a mix of pumpkin and nutmeg with a noticeable hint of cinnamon. First taste is a nice blend of natural pumpkin flavor with more sublet notes from the added spices and a light honey sweetness. The beer drinks easy and has all the nice flavors that a fall beer should have. The spices don’t overpower the beer, you can readily taste the natural pumpkin flavor without thinking that you are being force-fed pumpkin pie in a bottle. Plus the brew has a nice 8.0%ABV which you might not suspect as I found it to be a rather subtle. I love the design on the bottle and the name alone kind of makes it an easy sell to me, good thing it is also easy to drink and even easier to recommend.

Mike Hess Brewing: Magma Cucurbita, Imperial Pumpkin Stout.2014-10-13 16.06.38

Another beautiful bottle for a stout that pours at an impressive 7.25%ABV. The color is a dark molasses with a rich foamy head. The aroma is a roasted earthiness mixed with subtle hints of spice. Taste wise, it’s matches well with it’s aroma. This beer is roasted like pumpkin seeds and has an earthy quality like the brew just came out of the ground at a pumpkin patch. This beer drinks very well and gets more complex and enjoyable as it warms up to room temperature. On the front end of your palate, you get all the malty goodness, the pumpkin and spices are more subtle and noticeable on the back end. This is a wonderful beer to sit around on a cool autumn night with to help you stay warm.

Alpine Beer Company: Ichabod Ale.

With the amazing brewers at Alpine using a wheatwine as the base for this ale, you have to know it’s going to have a little something behind it, and at 10%ABV it doesn’t disappoint. The ale pours a golden orange color with a lovely nose of cinnamon and nutmeg but used moderately so as not to over power the beer they have crafted. It tastes as good as it smells and with a sticky wine sweetness that adds to the overall enjoyment of the beer. This isn’t one that should be gulped down in a hurry, this is a much more easy going, take a sip and enjoy the leaves changing color sort of beer. Take your time with this one and you’ll truly appreciate what it has to offer.2014-10-11 16.16.37

Kern River Brewing Company: Pumpkin Ale.

Kern River is not a San Diego brewery, but you’d never know it from the way their “Just Outstanding” IPA tastes. In fact, that beer is the sole reason I was so excited to try out this pumpkin ale. The label is simple yet the tag line says it all, “So good it’s scary!”. The beer pours a healthy orange color with a nice level of carbonation. The nose on this ale is full of fresh pumpkin smell and that’s exactly what you get as the ale touches your tongue. You’ll notice a soft undercurrent of allspice on the backend, but only if you are paying close attention. This pumpkin beer is amazingly drinkable and at only 5%ABV it’s not going to end your night of trick r’ treats early. The restraint from the temptation to over spice this beer is perhaps the most impressive thing of all. It takes true craftsmanship to show that level of restraint and let the fresh pumpkin flavors be the star of the beer. A phenomenal ale and luckily, everyone I’ve shared it with has agreed with that assessment. Highest recommendation you go find this beer right now.2014-10-13 23.06.59

So there are my four favorite pumpkins ales for this Halloween season, did I forget any? Let me know which ones have caught your eye.

Now if we could only get the brewers to make that beer with the turkey/cranberry/gravy/stuffing flavor for Thanksgiving we’d be all set!

Cheers and Happy Halloween!

Tom


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2014 Sore Eye Cup; Will your Favorite Beer be Representing?

Last year I was invited to participate in the judging for the first ever Sore Eye Cup Award, given to the brewery who produces the best regularly brewed beer in San Diego. Alesmith Brewing was deemed the winner for Speedway Stout and while they faced sturdy competition, they were able to easily outdistance themselves from the pack. This year, Brian Beagle of Sore Eye Sports, has graciously allowed me to return the judges table and help determine this years winning beer and brewers. Speedway Stout, as reigning champion, is not eligible to win this year. This is where we need your help.

There are a lot of really great beers being produced in San Diego year round. So many in fact, that it’s almost impossible for a panel of judges to have had each and every one, especially in a competition of this scale. That’s why we are asking for your help. This is one of my favorite parts about the Sore Eye Cup, everyone in San Diego, and across the country, can have a say and help us narrow the field down to the true cream of the crop.

Head over to Sore Eye Sports right now and vote for your top three regularly produced beers from San Diego county. It’s a big field of competitors and there is a wide range of styles being represented. What if you don’t see your favorite? Just email Brian and he can still add your favorite to the ballot. Right now you can find a list of local favorites from Ballast Point, Stone, Alpine, Helms, Societe, Pizza Port and more!

There aren’t too many beer competitions around that solicit for the opinion of the people who actually drink the beers. By helping us to narrow the field, not only are you making our job as judges easier, you are making sure your favorites are represented and getting a shot at the title.

The Sore Eye Cup will be awarded August 22nd, but this is the final week of voting, so don’t delay and get your votes in. You can vote for three beers a day, so there is still a lot of time to help your favorite beers make it to the final round where it’s awesomeness will be judged. So whose beer will fill this 64oz chalice? Help us decide!

Cheers,

Tom

One Cup to Rule them All! - photo by Brian Beagle

One Cup to Rule them All! – photo by Brian Beagle


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Alpine Beer Company

Alpine Beer Company has been my white whale for a while now. A trip to visit their facility was a seemingly impossible feet. It’s been elusive and always just out of my reach. Alpine is known for making some of the best IPA anywhere, so it makes sense that going there should be a foregone conclusion. They have a limited distribution network, which makes those times when you find it on draft somewhere all the more special. Amongst my friends, who were just as eager to go and enjoy a sip from that heavenly tap for a day, we could never come up with a game plan that worked best for the drive. By “worked best”, what I really am saying is that we all wanted to drink and not worry about getting a DUI on the way home. Drinking Alpine beer is like eating Pringles, once you pop you can’t stop! So the trick was always going to be finding a way to make the half an hour drive (not unreasonable by any means) but also make it back to central San Diego. We needed help.

Enter fellow blogger Megan, of monkeybreadandsweetpea.com

She and her husband happen to be two of my closet compadres and drinking buddies here in San Diego. As you may know from her blog, recently she had been trying a new cleanse program. This new cleanse, for reasons I’ve yet to comprehend, did not allow for the consuming of alcohol. This included beer. So this kind and goodly woman offered, of her own free will, to be our designated driver. Her application for sainthood is on the way!

The drive to Alpine is very nice. Just head east on the 8 and you’ll be there in no time flat. Once you get to the small town you get a very good sense of the charm it holds. If you park right in front of the building you’ll be faced with two choices. To your right is where they brew the beer. This is the door you want to go in for your growler fills or if you want to take a peek at the shiny equipment they have housed within. The door on your left is the Alpine Brew Pub where you can dine on some well prepared pub food while you enjoy to high quality beers on hand.

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We had plans to eat but like many of the best laid plans, we managed to foul things up somehow. It started out innocently enough as we started with two glasses of Duet, a nice golden pour with a nose full of tropical fruits. This is a 7.0ABV and it’s a sensational way to start a day of IPA’s. Next up was what would become the beer of the day – Pure Hoppiness. I swear I went into the pub with the intention of trying several tasters worth of their other beers, but as I said before, the plan got thrown out the window. This lead to Pure Hoppiness becoming the beer that ruled the day, and rightly so. This is a fantastic example of Imperial IPA being all it can be – an explosion of big hops flavor in your mouth that leaves you wanting more. You get you nice pine flavor and some crisp citrus as well. The hops is profound here, I need to emphasis this for those who maybe are not as crazy about that flavor as I am. This has a hops punch on the front and all the way through to the back. It’s delicious, delightful and damn good beer. It clocks in at 8%ABV and when you are drinking it in pitchers, well, this is why we needed to make sure we had a driver.

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As the day progressed we had more and more friends venture up and we had a great day at the pub. The only sad note is that one of my personal favorites was sold out that day – Nelson IPA. Nelson is another amazing IPA that will make your eyes pop when it touches your tongue. Simply put, if you want amazing IPA it’s pretty hard to go wrong at Alpine Beer Company, these guys have figured it out and they knock it out of the park every time.

Eventually, we stumble back to the car, oh so very thankful that we had a driver who either didn’t mind or is just used to chauffeuring drunks around town. Now we have to concoct a new plan so we can go back and let Megan enjoy the fun too. I wonder if my wife is planning a cleanse anytime soon…

Be sure to take a look at Alpine Beer Company’s website if you’d like directions or to know whats on the menu before you plan your trip to East County.

I can’t recommend it enough!

Cheers,
Tom