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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.



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Finding a dark corner to drink in the City of Lights

Paris, France is a city known for dozens of delights in the culinary world. It’s a land of baguettes, croissants, es cargo, and mouthwatering pastries that can stretch your waistline just by looking at them. The cheeses are simply some of the best I’ve ever had and they pair the wide variety of cheese very nicely with any one of a hundred wines that are grown and fermented across the region. It’s impossible to visit and not find something to satisfy the foodie that lives in all of us and usually takes control of us while on vacation. But how does a beer lover satisfy his or her need for biscuit-like malt flavors and some form of hops that we are all in love with?

There is a way.
Of course when you are in  Paris, or anywhere in France, you truly owe it to yourself to seek out wine from area and sample it. Just about every local we spoke to was more than happy to point us in the right direction on the extensive wine lists that are found in just about every restaurant, cafe and bistro you walk in. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t beer to be found in France. Craft Beer is a little harder to find, but I’ll get to that later.
Just about all the cafes and restaurants will offer a limited selection of beers, mostly on draft and mostly beers from the InBev family which, if you are like me, you will avoid with every fiber of your being. Luckily with neighbors to the north like Belgium, it isn’t too much strain to find something that isn’t owned by a giant corporation that cares little for quality and craftsmanship of their beers.
Now as much as I would have preferred to spend my time in Paris like the Beer Hunter Michael Jackson, I had to spend much of my days there being a tourist and photographer for the wife. Not that I minded too much. Well, maybe a little if I’m being honest. It was after one of our tourist adventures that I finally managed to do a little beer hunting of my own. After crossing the river Seine back to the left bank we walked the winding roads of the 5th arrondissment (district), not too far from where the Pantheon stands, I found a bastion of craft beer and it was noteworthy.
If a smiling beer face doesn't make you want to drink I don't know what will.

If a smiling beer face doesn’t make you want to drink I don’t know what will.

BREWBERRY – 18, Rue du Pot de Fer 75005 Paris www.brewberry.fr
Brewberry is basically a bottle shop with cold beer on hand that can be consumed on the premises while snacking on a tasty cheese board and other delectable delights. It can also be described as something of a beer cellar, as you walk down the steps and enter you get the feeling that you have entered into the basement of a good friend who knows good beers and hordes them all. If you don’t know what a basement is, I’d recommend meeting someone not from California to help fill you in. The walls are lines with shelf after shelf of fantastic beers, most are organized by style, but it’s easy to find your way around and get what you are looking for. In the center of the room are several tables for you and your friends to sit and enjoy your beverages. This is where craft beer lives in Paris.
There is a little bit of home on these shelves.

There is a little bit of home on these shelves.

Having been open for just about three years, Brewberry has in that time carved out a nice niche for themselves in a city of wine lovers. The staff is very friends as was the mix of locals and ex-pats who were there on the night we stopped by for our visit. Oddly enough, of all the places I went looking for beers made in France, this was the only spot out of an innumerable amount of bars we visited that carried them. Brasserie Fleurac makes a pretty solid tripel and I can only hope that the brewery gets more success in its own country. The selection of bottles on hand is very diverse and I had to admit a fair amount of pride at seeing some of San Diego’s best breweries prominently on display like Green Flash, Alesmith and Lost Abbey.
French beer. Pretty good!

French beer. Pretty good!

Paris has several other highly praised bottle shop spread around the city as well as one or two micro breweries that I wish I had the opportunity to visit. Unfortunately my old enemy, time, prevented me from finding more locations that I could compare to Brewberry. Another reason was that I didn’t want to get too crazy with the beer in Paris because our next destination was Belgium and I needed my liver in top condition.
This is called a "Prelude" of things to come!

This is called a “Prelude” of things to come!

So how did Belgium go? Stay tuned.


Beer Hunt pt 2 : Under the Tuscan Sun or Drunk under a Tuscan table

The next leg of our journey to Italy took us to Florence, right in the heart of Tuscan wine county. Surely beer would be even harder to find here than in Rome. Turns out, maybe that isn’t the case after all.

Florence, or Firenze as the locals call it, was hands down my favorite place we visited. It’s relatively small and easy to walk around and soak up all the history. This is the home of renaissance and the people there have worked hard to preserve that look and feel to the town.
Don’t let that last part fool you, there is still a lot of modern life mixed in with the history. For the record I’d just like to state that the Duomo is possibly the most impressive building I have seen in my life. It’s just amazing to see with your own eyes.

Walking the streets of the Florence is a lot of fun. You are never too far away from a really cool historical landmark or a gelataria for those moments when absolutely need a waffle cone of gelato.
The first pub we came across was nothing to write home about. I stared to get discourage. Did I miss my window to explore some new beers while in Rome?

The next day, after a very nice guided walking tour of the town, we came to a large farmers market. Bread, cheeses, sausage and wine as everywhere you looked in this town square. Tucked discreetly amongst all that bread and cheese was a table for a small micro brewery in the region. The microbrewery was called Conte Di Campiglia.
We were able to sample their standard lager which was pretty solid. The taste was a little different from what most of are accustomed to, I believe this has to with the Italian obsession with hazelnuts. They love hazelnut in everything over there, it may be the one thing they love more than smoking…nah, who am I kidding on that?
This microbrewery embodied that love of hazelnut in everything they made.
We purchased two bottles of their seasonal brews, a pumpkin ale and a Christmas beer, to take back and drink at our hotel later that night.

Both of those seasonal beers were unique to say the least. The pumpkin was strong on the boozy qualities, almost to the point of overwhelming the pumpkin, which was a more subtle flavor. Not my favorite pumpkin beer, but not the worst by far. The Christmas beer was better overall but that crazy obsession with hazelnut was very noticeable in this brew as well. Still, it wasn’t enough to make me put down.

The next night out was where thing got interesting.

We pretty much stumbles across a pub called The King Grizzly, and I was shocked to see some of the beers they had available there. Now it wasn’t a crazy huge selection by any means, but they were stocking a nice assortment of American craft beers including Anderson Valley. Looking at the drafts I saw a bunch of beers I was unfamiliar with but after having a nice conversation about how Italy has a small but growing craft beer movement with the bartender/owner Alessandro, he broke out a couple bottles from his hometown brewery, Birrificio Emiliano – and dig this: These guys are into hops.

The first bottle we broke open was the Rimasta Di Farro – it’s essentially an Italian version of an American pale ale. It’s comes in at 5.5%ABV and has some nice flavor notes to it. You can find the English hops, and it’s not pushed to hard but malts. I enjoyed it very much.

Next up from the selection of Emiliano bottles was Pomposa. It’s a dark ale, along the lines of a Belgian, but I think it’s been tweaked a little to give it a bit of an Italian feel to it as well. It comes in at 6.1ABV but like the previous beer it lacks that sort of kick you in the butt feel that I makes me like a beer more than most.

Our final bottle and the creme de la creme of the whole nigh was Imperium also from Emiliano. This beer was really good. It was about as close I was going to get to a San Diego style IPA and I was very surprised and pleased by it. At 7%ABV this beer is nothing to sneeze at either. Now, listen, if you were to line this beer up against Stone or Ballast Point of Green Flash, I’m not saying it would hold a candle to them but in my opinion this beer is a sign of things to come in Italy and their small but growing craft beer movement. This is the direction I’d like to see that movement head in. The initial reaction I witnessed to others drinking the Imperium seemed to say that maybe they aren’t quite ready for a hops take over just yet, but it’s got to start somewhere and this beer is the kind that will push things in the right direction.

We would spend another evening at the King Grizzly talking further with Alessandro and the evolving beer culture in his country. He’s a good dude and luckily his English is pretty good too but my Italian is for shit.

So basically this was my find of the trip. If we are ever lucky enough to go back to Italy I’d love the opportunity to explore and go on a few more beer oriented adventures. I got the impression that what I found was barely the tip of the iceberg as fast as micro-brewing in Italy is concerned.  For now, the tip will just have to be enough. That’s what she said. BOOM!



Not too shabby

Not too shabby

Hello friend.

Hello friend.

Me happy.

Me happy.

An italian IPA? OK!

An italian IPA? OK!

A nice start.

A nice start.

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A one man wolfpack in LA (sorta) – Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewing Co.

On a weekend where I had family commitments in the Los Angeles area, I had made the assumption that I would not get the opportunity to really indulge in much beer drinking. Most of the people in my family still consider Budweiser “The good stuff”. It really didn’t seem like I was gonna be able to pull off  any quality beer time after the plan got all jumbled up just before the trip. But, as they say, “where there is beer, there is a way”…I think that’s how that goes.

My mother lives in the Santa Clarita area. Not exactly a hotbed of craft brewing. Before leaving San Diego after work on Friday, I took a moment to check yelp and see what restaurants are near my mom’s house where I would take her for dinner. One caught my eye immediately Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewing Company. I did not, however, pick this spot to take my mom. Just didn’t think going beer tasting with my mother sounded all that much fun. So I tucked that name away in my brain and hoped I could find a little time on Saturday. Which worked out well because my Mom said she wanted to go for pizza at Oggi’s nearby anyway. Oggi’s is a popular San Diego pizza and brewery chain that has several location in Orange County and Los Angeles now. I enjoy the Torrey Pines IPA, and the fact I can get it in a 22oz glass is even better. I will have more to say about Oggi’s in a later post, I promise, but in the meantime go get that Torrey Pines IPA.

On Saturday, plans changed again and all of a sudden I had a ton of time to play with. I wrapped up a few errands and checked in with my brother who was in the area as well. We agreed to meet up after he finished a few things he was doing at the time. This was my window of opportunity to check out Wolf Creek.

I’d also like to point out, at this point in the afternoon, temperatures outside were reading 104 degrees. It was hot and I was a sweaty mess. Beer sounded like just what I needed… or maybe it was just a great excuse to sit in a nice cool building.

Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewing Company is tucked away in a small shopping center that I’ve driven past many times on trips to visit family but had never stopped in before. Walking in, you couldn’t help but notice the very busy lunch crowd that was here on this super hot Saturday. Not that I was going to let the lunch crowd stop me. I pulled up a rustic looking wooden stool and sat at the end of the bar. The TV was playing gold medal round women’s basketball and most of the people there seemed to have there attention on it…even though the US was up by 30 points.

Looking around the bar, there is a good feel to the place. A glass window behind the bar shows where the magic happens – where they make the beer! Hanging proudly on display are the various medals the beers have won over the years, a nice accolade that I enjoy seeing prominently placed. Framing the window are rows and rows of mugs for a mug club that the bar has going on. What I like most about the mugs is that they are all individualized, I saw no two mugs that I saw were the same. Very neat.

The time to place my order arrives and would it surprise you to find out I ordered a flight of tasters? Predictable but worth it in every way. Check out of the photo and you’ll see these are pretty nice 4oz tasters.

The flight is six of the house beers, sadly, two of the house beers were out on this day. They were happy to substitute two of the guest drafts in their place, so Green Flash IPA and Great Divide’s Titan IPA rounded out my flight. Here are my thoughts on what Wolf Creek was brewing.

Golden Eagle – 4.5%ABV – A light blonde ale that is easy drinking, especially on a day when it’s 104 degrees outside! Light on the hops but clean and refreshing.

Wild Angels Dubbel Trubbel – 9.0%ABV –  Belgian style, smooth drinking and very sweet. Brown sugar and notes of chocolate. I did like it, but probably too sweet for me to order on a regular basis.

Howlin Hefeweizen – 6.2%ABV –  Yeah, this is hef. It’s got a fruity quality to it, strong wheat flavor and, thank god, no need to drop a damn lemon in it. Good color too. A very enjoyable and solid hefeweizen.

Midnight Howl Black IPA – 8.5%ABV –  Roasted bittersweet chocolate and caramel malts was the first thing I noticed, then the big hops flavor came on and was a very nice surprise! This is an award winner for a reason, it has an excellent balance which I think most Hop heads would enjoy! My big winner of the day for sure!

The two beers they were out of, Surfin Monks Tripel, which sounded amazing from the description I was told, and the Renegade Rye Imperial IPA, so I guess that means on my next trip up north I will swing by again and gladly. Also, from perusing their website I learned that they have several other tasty treats that they are known to brew up depending on the season. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for Alpha Wolf IPA, Big Bear Brown Ale, Desperado IPA, Don’t Tread Red, Hopdazed Imperial IPA, Irish Red Ale, Mountain Hawk Red Ale, Timber Wolf Bourbon-Oaked Ale, Werewolf Harvest Ale, Winter Wonderland Ale, Wolfpack Pale Ale and Yellowstone Wolf Pale Ale.

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So as you can see, they have some pretty serious brewing going on in Santa Clarita at Wolf Creek. My only real complaint is that all those beers I just listed weren’t currently on tap. The opposite side of that coin is that after what I drank on Saturday, I have full confidence that when I do have the chance for those beers, they are gonna be pretty damn good.

Wolf Creek also boasts an impressive rotating guest draft selection and a bottle selection that would make any craft beer enthusiast weep with joy! There really isn’t a bad beer to be found in the place. Color me impressed!

They have two locations – the one I visited is located at 27746 McBean Parkway, Santa Clarita CA 91354 and their newest location in Calabasas at 26787 Agoura Rd Calabasas CA 91302. I do suggest that the next time you find yourself in the LA area and in need of some tasty craft beers, this is a pretty can’t miss spot.

Maybe LA isn’t so bad after all…unless we’re talking about the people who still root for the Raiders. Or USC. Or the Dodgers….

I kid I kid, (or do I?)

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