Sunday, May 31, 2009

Prices and the grocery store debate: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part V

This is Part V of Soggy Coaster's interview with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. Previous installments are posted below. The remainder of the interview will be published in installments over the next few days:

Soggy Coaster: So I wanted to talk about prices a bit. Everyone who buys beer knows that prices have gone up. What’s behind that and what do you see in the next year or so?

Dave Thibodeau: As far as beer prices going up, the thing about it that you always have to keep in mind is that it’s still totally an affordable luxury. It’s still a high-end product – craft beer, anyways. When you compare it to wine, it’s still a value for what you’re getting. Even some of the more expensive beers.

Our costs of our materials, our hops and barley, went up exorbitantly a year ago. We signed some long-term contracts to keep some prices where we could manage them, but the thing was kind of this perfect storm of an adjustment from the ‘90s that farmers were making to the market and then some growth on the craft beer side, some problems with hops in other parts of the world, drought, also, as far as barley goes.

All of the sudden, there were varieties that were no longer available. There were other varieties that were in very short supply and only the bigger guys could afford to do these long-term contracts or even forecast what they were going to do, because that’s a difficult thing.

It takes about three years for the market to adjust, and that’s of course happening. Now, we’re almost two years into it. You can see it leveling out. I don’t think prices are going to drop, but I think we can hope that they’re not going to go up like that again.

One thing that is definitely happening and you’re seeing a bunch of it in Colorado now, and I’m happy to say we’re a part of it, is a real local effort to get ingredients. We had a beer called Hoperation Ivy in the fall – it was a wet-hop beer – where we actually handpicked all the hops in Montrose, and they were Colorado hops. There’s some guys growing barley outside of Alamosa right now and hopefully we’ll have an all-Colorado beer this fall. The same beer, but hopefully with all-Colorado ingredients. It’s nice to have that going on, and I know that’s happening in other states, too, that previously didn’t do that.

The other cool thing is people are using a lot of ingredients to sort of substitute for hops. So you’re seeing a lot more spices and herbs. It’s really just spawned a lot of creativity.

Granted, prices are up on all the good, traditional beers or even the stronger-selling beers. There’s no way anybody could have gotten by, there’s no way anybody even slightly covered their margin selling their beer to a wholesaler. No matter how high their price increase was, they didn’t cover that margin. There’s not a chance. Maybe some of the huge guys, but I don’t know.

Soggy: Got it. So the grocery store sales debate marches on. How would grocery store sales affect Ska?

Thibodeau: What I believe would happen is that we would probably see an initial increase in sales, assuming some grocery stores took some Ska products. The problem with that is a lot of the grocery store chains like Wal-Mart or Safeway or Albertson’s have corporate headquarters in another state, and a beer buyer that doesn’t even live in Colorado that you have to go through. So it’s hard to tell.

They rely on scan data, sales data from other chains to determine what sells well. So a small brewery like us, we don’t sell nationally in all these chains, so there is none of that data on us. So you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know the area, doesn’t know it’s selling where you live, doesn’t care. They just want to see the scan data, and it makes it incredibly difficult for us to get in a place like that.

On the flipside, there are places like City Market, where they have a beer buyer that buys for the King Sooper’s and City Markets in Denver. He lives in Denver, he used to live in Durango. I think that chain in Colorado might sell some of our beer.

Most of the little independently and locally owned liquor stores that are sitting right next to these large, chain grocery stores, a lot of those guys would go out of business. I think the data says 50 percent of them within five years, and you could see how that would happen. This is what’s unfair about it: they strategically located their stores inn the parking lots of grocery stores. It was their business plan. To go and change the rules now that negates the entire reason they thought they had a good idea, it isn’t fair.

Some of the bigger guys might be able to get by specializing with certain products that the grocery stores aren’t going to stock. But most people are going to take advantage of the convenience and forgo the little bit crazier beer just to grab a six-pack while they’re in the grocery store. And ultimately, when that little guy goes out of business then you’re going to lose that selection. So the consumer is not going to be able to buy the good beers. They’re not going to be able to buy the good beer where they can now. There’s going to be different pricing situations that take place once that happens. They’re going to want to consolidate orders. It’s eventually going to just crush all these little guys.

The percentage of sales probably won’t change all that much. They’ll just shift to these guys that are headquartered out of state. So all the money in Durango that stays local right now, because it’s a locally owned, independent business, those exact sales will shift to another company and 75 percent of that dollar will go out of state all of the sudden when it was all staying here before. It’ll be detrimental to small communities like us.

It’s hard to battle these big guys. They’ve got money, they’ve got lobbyists, they’re going to pay them and go to town. I think initially it might sound like a good thing. It sounds convenient to people. But I think it’s just going to crush things in the long run.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Modus gone Belgian: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part IV

This is Part IV of Soggy Coaster's interview with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. Previous installments are posted below. The remainder of the interview will be published in installments over the next several days:

Soggy: So, how has the economy affected Ska? Have you noticed any slowdown at all?

Thibodeau: Not really, but I don’t know how much of that you could attribute to new markets and new products. You know, Texas and Modus (Hoperandi IPA) and then (True) Blonde in cans. And we’re just about to come out with an assorted 12-pack of cans. So it’s really kind of hard to tell. Durango’s still chugging along. We’ve lost a little bit of sales. I mean the growth is still up there, we’re still growing. But growth in the off-premise (sales), which are the liquor stores, is higher than the on-premise, which are the bars and restaurants. So my guess would be that people are buying more beer at the liquor store to drink at home, instead of going out and drinking that beer.

The thing that always comes out of people’s mouths is, ‘that’s the great thing about beer, is nobody quits drinking during a recession.’ But the thing is, when you’re talking about beer at this level, high-end craft beer, I think we might lose some people to some cheaper craft beers or maybe some cheaper beer overall. They might trade down a little bit. But at the same time, we’re also maybe getting some wine drinkers that are trading across. Because people can get more value out of a six-pack than a bottle of wine.

What’s cool about that is craft beer has grown so much and there’s so many great and diverse styles of beer out there and people are starting to realize how well it pairs with food and how much there is going on within some of these beers that I think we’re converting a lot of wine drinkers. And it’s cool because we’re doing it without the snotty wine side. I mean, it’s obvious that craft beer is the biggest growth segment within the beer category. You have to be wearing a blindfold to not notice what’s going on with craft beer now. It’s everywhere. You see it in the news and you see it in the paper and you see it on the Internet. You see the growth that we’re all going through and it’s because, I think, that craft beer really is that good.

Soggy: So Modus Hoperandi was your first new year-round release in many years. How has it been received?

Thibodeau: It’s overwhelming. We can’t keep up with it. (Asking co-worker): Justin, are we out of Modus right now?

Justin: Out of cans.

Thibodeau: I mean, it wouldn’t matter when I asked him, we’d be out. So it’s cool. We didn’t immediately release it in every market. We tried to kind of make some steps there. It’s just doing really well. And the cans are doing particularly well, so that’s kind of exciting. It’s getting great reviews on all the online review sites, and around town, and all of our distributors are growing with it quickly. That was the perfect beer for us to come out with.

Plus, we’re all drinking the crap out of it. It’s definitely what I’m drinking right now. I mean, right now, I’m drinking Mexican Logger, but when I go home, I’m probably going to drink some Modus.

Soggy: As a fan of big, experimental beers, I appreciated your effort with Strong Scotch Ale. Do you have any plans to make any other real high-end beers like that?

Thibodeau: We do, actually. We have a fairly crazy batch of beer aging in a bunch of bourbon barrels right now – some Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. It’s basically a blend of the Modus. This isn’t the best way to explain it, but it’s a blend of a couple beers with a little bit of a Belgian yeast. It’s got multiple yeast strains involved in it.

It’s been in 10-year Heaven Hill bourbon barrels for a number of months now. I think within the month, we’re going to blend them and transfer them into a tank and bottle that off. So that’ll be another one that’s kind of crazy. We were just tasting them all yesterday to see how they were going to blend. It’s kind of exciting. It’s just got a little hint of a spicy, Belgian characteristic. But it’s hoppy, and you still get some of the barrel out of it. So slight bourbon, slight oak, hops and a little bit of the Belgian character. It’s awesome. We haven’t really figured out what it’s called yet. It was kind of an experiment gone right.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ska in Texas: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part III

This is Part III of Soggy Coaster's interview with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. Parts I and II are posted below. The remainder of the interview will be published in installments over the next several days

Soggy Coaster: So you brewed about 9,000 barrels last year? Is that about right?

Dave Thibodeau: I think that’s about right. I don’t know if we’ll hit 12,000 this year, but probably in the next 12 months we’ll hit 12,000.

Soggy: That’s good to hear.

Thibodeau: We’re pretty much operating at capacity and we’ve got a couple more tanks that we ordered coming in the next couple weeks. It’s weird. We got into the new building and we just filled it up immediately.

Soggy: That has a way of happening, I’d imagine.

Thibodeau: Which is good.

Soggy: How’s the new building working out? Any kinks, or is everything flowing pretty smoothly?

Thibodeau: There’s of course some kinks, and I have to give a lot of credit to my partner Matt (Vincent). Bill (Graham) down in the brewery, too. As many things as were possible to overlook, I can’t believe how few actually were overlooked. Matt basically designed it.

We did have an engineer and an architect to help him out, but Matt really kind of got into it. It’s amazing how well it’s all working. Overall, the way it functions and how much easier almost everybody’s job got is phenomenal. It’s great. And it’s just easier to make beer here, easier to distribute beer out of here, easier to just store stuff. The quality’s better. Everybody’s jobs are better. Everybody’s jobs are easier, more efficient. The building itself as far as energy use is so much more efficient. And it’s just much, much nicer.

Soggy: What’s your most important market besides Durango?

Thibodeau: I don’t know what I would say our most important market is. I mean, Colorado, being our backyard, we owe a lot to Colorado. Bill and I are Colorado natives from the Front Range. So if I had to rank importance, I would say Colorado is absolutely the most important.

Our other markets are all doing really well. We did just roll out in Texas. Texas is taking a lot of beer, and it’s pretty fun down there. Parts of it, between Dallas and Houston and Austin, of course, is a place where we’re selling a lot of craft beer – there’s a lot of craft beer in Austin, but there’s not a lot of breweries in Texas. So we only rolled out with a couple of our main products, Pinstripe (Red Ale) and (True Blonde Ale), and then now the Modus (Hoperandi IPA).

We’re the big distributor down there. They’re going through a lot of beer. It’s the hot summer months, they’ve got True Blonde and Pinstripe, fairly sessionable beers. They’re just ordering like crazy, and there’s so many people, you can almost accidentally sell more beer in Texas than in Colorado. There’s more people in those three cities, I think, than in the state of Colorado. So that’s important because there’s so many people, the market’s just taking off. It’s not all about the super high-end, huge beers. The weather’s warm.

We make a lot of traditional English-style ales because that’s what we like to drink. Don’t get me wrong, we like bigger, crazier and weirder beers. But we drink a lot of beer. I mean, up here at the brewery, when we sit down and drink a beer, we might drink 10 beers or whatever. It might be hot, and we’re on the edge of the desert. So we make the type of beer that we drink all the time. Texas is like that. And being an emerging market with so few breweries down there, it’s nice to get in there and establish a good ground level and grow with the rest of the state.

Soggy: When did you go into Texas?

Thibodeau: The first week of April. It went great. People are so cool that are into craft beer down there. It’s just taking off. Everybody was warmly welcoming us. Nobody was craft-beer snooty. You get some of the other markets where there’s ton of craft beer and you’re going to encounter the occasional craft beer snot. And I’m just too shy to deal with that person. I’d rather deal with somebody who wants to sit down and talk about it – talk about making it, drink it and not the snotty side but more of the partying, friendly side.

Soggy: Gotcha. Do you have any plans for any other new markets. Is there any roll-outs scheduled in the near future?

Thibodeau: We’re just wrapping up preparations for Kansas.

Soggy: You’ll have us more or less surrounded.

Thibodeau: Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do. We want to get our states that are close to home and in our backyard. We’ll have Kansas and Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. You know, Utah’s got its own issues to work out. We really want to concentrate there – or here, I’d like to say – and sell more beer here in those markets and put more effort into really supporting the product. I think it’s a more sustainable way to grow. You have more control over the quality. You keep your dollars more located around where you are. And you have more of an impact and I think you’re more part of that community. Not just brewing and selling great beer, but you can help in a lot of other levels as far as the community aspect goes. So we want to concentrate around here and keep slow, steady growth in our existing markets. So I don’t know what market we might hit next if any, or when that might happen.

Soggy: One step at a time. What’s your best-selling beer at the moment?

Thibodeau: Still Pinstripe. Blonde goes out pretty well – I don’t have the numbers, but Blonde does pretty well in the summer. Overall, Pinstripe, definitely, far and way. But Blonde gets pretty close in the summer.

Pinstripe’s kind of the flagship. It’s pretty easy drinking. We labeled it a red ale, but when we made it, that wasn’t even a category. There were amber ales, which eventually got lumped into that category, but we just called it red because it was red in color. We didn’t follow any guidelines to make a red ale. It actually came about because of an accident or a mistake. We ran out of ingredients on True Blonde – the second batch of beer we ever made – and we quickly formulated a recipe with what we had left and that’s what we came up with. I mean, while we were mashing in we ran out of ingredients.

It’s pretty easy drinking. It’s basically an ordinary bitter. It’s kind of a British mild-style ale. You know, medium-hopped, medium body, still a little bit on the lighter side. I’d hate to categorize us like that, but I’d almost say it’s our Fat Tire. The Ska version of whatever. So it’s our flagship. I love our other flagships, which are all traditional, English-style ales.

Homebrew in a Bucket: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part II

This is Part II of Soggy Coaster's interview with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. Part I is posted below. I'll publish the remainder of the interview in installments over the next several days.

Soggy Coaster: So what did you homebrew as a youth?

Dave Thibodeau: The one that we saved that I have a bottle of around here somewhere was a black lager made with spruce tips. Honestly, that was the first beer that we made that was really good. We made a lot of crappy homebrew.

I was talking to my parents yesterday. I moved out of there I don’t know how many years ago. But they were just cleaning out my old brewing space in the basement and I think they found a batch that I never even bottled. It was still sitting in a bucket.

Yeah, black lager made with spruce tips. We actually went around and picked new growth off the spruce trees. That was kind of cool because nobody had heard of anything like that.

The other beer, I want to say it was an alt beer that we brought to Matt’s homebrew party. The first few were just recipes out of Charlie Papazian’s “Joy of Homebrewing” book. We started getting a little crazier after a couple of years. We realized you didn’t really have to stick to all these rules. It took a while, though.

Soggy: Was there a moment when you knew that Ska had made it?

Thibodeau: I’m hoping there will be. (laughs). It’s definitely bigger than we ever imagined it would be. It’s still manageable. I don’t think it’s changed anything we do.

The only thing that makes you think about it differently is there’s other people who work for us whose lives depend on the decisions we make, in a way. I don’t know if you’d say we made it, but that was a big realization along the path is that, ‘Wow there’s other people that depend on us now - We pretty ought to take it a little more seriously.’ At least behind the scenes.

Soggy: Speaking of which, how many employees do you have now?

Thibodeau: I think we have 30, 31.

Soggy: Awesome. It’s pretty amazing how Ska has become kind of an economic driver in Durango.

Thibodeau: That was the interesting thing, building this building, all the contractors and subcontractors – there was a few million dollars that was moving around Durango. That’s kind of interesting, having that many people work here. The other thing is you have to factor in that we export outside of Durango and Colorado, so you’re bringing in money that is coming into from someplace else.

Soggy: So what are your day-to-day responsibilities at Ska?

Thibodeau: I’m the marketing and distribution and sales guy, so I get a lot of the e-mails, just general inquiries. And I deal with the customers. I get a lot of the inquiries about, “Can we buy beer here? Can we buy beer there?” I deal with a lot of the Internet stuff. I deal with all of our marketing stuff and then we do have a head sales person who is taking a bigger role in managing that side of things. Ultimately, I work at getting our new markets and making those relationships work. And then I also deal with anything kind of on the promotional side and on the philanthropic side, too, so people who are looking for donations or setting up special events. I do a lot of special events and different ideas. And then I deal with everything from whether it’s Web site design to package design, to an ad in the Telegraph. And that’s all my side. I don’t actually brew beer so much anymore.

Soggy: The website looks really good. So what’s your favorite part of your job?

Thibodeau: It used to be brewing beer. (laughs) But I didn’t brew as good of beer as our brewers do now. But you know I love the marketing side. Coming up with the Modus Hoperandi (IPA), I struggled trying to figure out a name for it and I didn’t really know what to do with the graphics and I’d just lie awake at night thinking about it. And then I finally got it all. I actually came up with the name. The name could come from any of us, and same with the design. But I’m the one who kind of thinks about, tries to talk to people about it. I love when parts come together and create something that I don’t think anybody could have done any better. That particular package is a good example of that. That’s what I like.

I like dealing with the distributors and people who are really into craft beer, too. So I really like selling it. I’m kind of shy, but once I’m in there I really like talking about it and of course, the best thing is drinking beer.

Soggy: Sure. So what’s your least favorite? What’s a grind?

Thibodeau: Honestly, it’s any sales person is sent to me. Sometimes there’s somebody that I do want to deal with, but every single – whether it’s a phone book or a magazine or online stuff, whatever it is goes to me. And we don’t do a ton advertising, and I don’t like taking up my time explaining it to somebody where they’re really pushing the sale. I don’t like being rude, because it’s their job and it’s their life, but I really hate having to spend so much of my time dealing with that, honestly. But there are not a lot of bad things to being in the craft beer business at this point in time. I really love it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The tale of Ska: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part I

Soggy Coaster sat down recently with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. in Durango. Thibodeau and Bill Graham started Ska in 1995. The brewery is best known for Pinstripe Red Ale and True Blonde Ale, but it brews everything from an imperial porter to a Mexican lager. I edited and condensed the transcript, and I'll be posting the remainder of this interview in installments over the next several days:

Soggy Coaster: So let’s begin at the beginning. How did you, Bill (Graham) and Matt (Vincent) get together?

Dave Thibodeau: Bill and I started it. Bill and I were homebrewers in high school. We actually stumbled across a log book of my dad’s in his library. It said ‘beer log’ or something. And we flipped through it. We were wondering, at what point do you add alcohol in making beer? And we realized that you actually fermented it and you created the alcohol. And we were 17, 18 probably. And we realized that we could make our own beer without having to buy it. We were old enough to buy the ingredients.

We would always homebrew. At that point in time, there weren’t any homebrew shops. This was up in Denver. One opened up later that year, but we used to have to go buy ingredients from a friend of my dad’s basement up in Laramie, Wyoming. Or we did for the first couple batches, anyways.

That’s how we got into homebrewing, and we just homebrewed for years. I mean, at first, it was just getting drunk. The beers slowly got better. And then by the time we were graduating, we both wanted to be living in Durango. But we kept brewing beer this whole time.

We used to always put – because it was novel at the time – we were really into ska music, we were into comic books. We would put whatever the name of the beer was on the label that we’d make up on Bill’s Macintosh or Commodore 250 or whatever it was (laughs). We’d put Ska Brewing – Dave’s kitchen, Bill’s kitchen, Durango or Boulder or whatever it was.

Once we got to Durango, we were both working other jobs – I worked up at Purgatory (Mountain) and Bill worked for, I think, KREZ – and we realized that we definitely were going to have to start our own brewery.

We were fortunate enough at that time, we went for it, we got a small loan from Bill’s dad. We did a lot of traveling up and down the Western Slope. There were some closed-down dairies and creameries that had some old stainless tanks, a different type of equipment, but we knew we could use them. We did a lot of bartering, traded with some people, sold some stuff, bought some other stuff and eventually had enough to start in the corner of the warehouse where our old space was.

We didn’t really know Matt at the time. But we met him through a homebrew party. And I think we were the only three real homebrewers in Durango. So we brought a keg and kind of crashed his party and he was totally excited about it, that someone showed up with an actual keg of homebrew.

He had a kegerator hooked up that had three of his kegs, but he could put four in it. So we had four homebrew kegs, a big party and all these punk-ass kids totally into drinking crazy homebrew.

He was actually starting brewing for Durango Brewing right about that time. Then we started brewing together. Bill and I opened up, and Matt helped us out with a bunch of stuff over the course of the year. Then after a year, Matt bought in.

We started 14 years ago and Matt bought in about 13 years ago. So that’s how we got rolling.

Steamworks boosts wholesale revenue

Steamworks Brewing Co. has hired Mike Simmons to streamline production at the brewery's Bayfield plant.

Since Simmons started Jan. 1, Steamworks has increased revenues on the wholesale side of the operation by nearly 40 percent, and in March the Bayfield brewery reached capacity for the first time since its opening in 2005, according to a news release.

"I just make sure to maximize the information given to me to stay on schedule, meet orders, adhere to budgets and keep profitable margins," Simmons said. "When you walk into the brewery now, you’ll see boards everywhere with schedules and charts of what we’re doing. We’re a little bit more structured now."

Interestingly, Simmons comes from a non-brewing background, having worked previously for corporations such as IGT of Reno, Nev., and J.T. Baker, Inc., a division of Procter & Gamble.

On tap at Carver's

Via Facebook:

"The Garden-Brau Hefeweizen is a German wheat beer, chalked full of yeasty goodness, this great summer quaffer has banana and clove esters and comes with or without a lemon wedge.

Colorado Uncommon is a double Steam beer. Super malty, super hoppy and super heady!

For a limited time only, Carvers is serving some beer-gone-wild. We took what was left of this years Big Grizz Barleywine and mixed it with a Bourbon-barrel aged and soured version of an older barleywine and a fruited and barrel aged 120 Shilling Scottish Ale. What we got was a very tart and complex beverage. Try it while you can."

Soggy Coaster threw back a hefeweizen today. It was quite a tasty example of the style and a good complement to the warm weather. I'm looking forward to trying the barleywine.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Taste of Durango

A huge crowd packed Main Avenue on Sunday for Taste of Durango, the town's annual showcase for restaurants.

The breweries came out, too. All four Durango breweries had booths, along with Silverton Brewery and Pagosa Brewing.

Silverton and Pagosa each make some good brews, but in my experience they're not as consistent as their Durango counterparts. Both are growing up and getting better each year.

Soggy Coaster had a Pagosa Pale Ale, which was decent if unexceptional. Unfortunately, Pagosa's tasty Powder Day IPA was not available.

The most interesting beer was the dandelion saison from the Bootlegger's Society, the consortium of Durango breweries. It was brewed using real dandelions for some sort of hippie event.

Soggy Coaster found it quite refreshing. The dandelions are barely discernible, and the saison yeast is also not assertive. It almost tasted like a lager. Nevertheless, it filled the bill for a hot day in the sun.

The dandelion saison should continue to be on tap at the Durango breweries until supplies run out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ska-B-Q resumes

The season's first Ska-B-Q kicks off tonight (Thursday, May 14) at Ska Brewing HQ on Girard Street in Bodo Industrial Park.

Ska currently has the Bootleggers Society's Spring Tonic Elixir on tap in addition to Ska's seasonal Mexican Logger and all the usual favorites.

Coors on fire

A Coors beer truck caught fire in Durango on Wednesday, wasting untold amounts of Rocky Mountain goodness. The Durango Herald reports:

Firefighters used foam to suppress the fire. Apparently, the cans of beer that exploded in the heat weren't enough to douse the flames, said Dave Abercrombie, spokesman for the Durango & Fire Rescue Authority.

"They were popping off, but not a sufficient amount of volume to put the fire out," he said.

Soggy Coaster wonders how the Frost Brew Liner stood up to the intense heat.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Questions for Thibodeau

Soggy Coaster will be sitting down with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing, for a Q-and-A as soon as our mutual schedules allow. The results will be posted here.

I have my own questions I'd like to ask the man, but I'll put it out there for y'all: What questions would you like answered?

Leave a comment or e-mail me at soggycoaster(at)gmail(dot)com.

Victory is mine

Soggy Coaster has been working his way through a six pack from Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, split evenly between the Whirlwind Wit and Prima Pils.

One can't really go wrong with any of their beers, but Soggy Coaster was in the mood for some easy-sipping summer brews.

A summer seasonal, Whirlwind Wit is a Belgian-style wheat beer. It pours very pale, almost white. The taste is wheaty, fruity and refreshing. If you like Ska's DIFF, you'll like this, too. It's well worth checking out.

Prima Pils is oddly hoppy for a pilsener. Perhaps Soggy Coaster should have been tipped off by the hop cone adorning the bottle label of this year-round brew.

If you're a hophead, the Prima Pils will appeal. I personally preferred the Whirlwind Wit.

(Logo courtesy Victory Brewing).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Honest pints

Jeff Alworth over at Beervana has been plugging away on his Honest Pint Project for a while now. His basic premise is that if you pay for a pint, you should get a pint. He started by certifying certain Portland pubs as purveyors of honest pints.

The rub is that many pints you receive on tap don't actually contain 16 oz. of liquid. Some have false bottoms that rob the glass of capacity. (This is apparently most often a problem at chain restaurants). But even 16 oz. glasses don't yield 16 ounces of beer after the foam has dissipated.

Alworth's idea has caught on way beyond the blogosphere. He earned a write up in the Wall Street Journal last year. On Thursday, Oregon's House of Representatives gave its approval to a bill that would allow bars and restaurants to request a health inspector to measure their glassware. As Seattle Weekly reported, "If it passes the full-pint test, the establishment is certified as serving an 'Honest Pint,' good for two years and for the privilege to display a sticker on premises."

Oregon's legislation is amusing but it may have some real effects. It's probably most valuable as a public relations vehicle in getting people to associate Oregon with serious beer drinking.

Locally, Soggy Coaster congratulates Steamworks and The Irish Embassy on serving honest pints. Those two establishments offer 20 oz. "imperial pints" that if ordered guarantee at least 16 ounces of actual beer.

The other option is to simply not call your beer a pint. Lost Dog advertises its $2 beers as "drafts." That's honest, and for $2, it's one of Soggy Coaster's favorite taps in Durango.

More on grocery store sales

The Durango Herald has an editorial today on efforts to allow full-strength beer to be sold in grocery stores. The piece comes down on the side of the liquor-store owners and brewers, who fear competition from grocery stores would hurt local businesses and jobs. The meat of it:

" ... the profit ... will go to an out-of-state corporation instead of a local liquor store. That business' employees, the guy who used to load the truck in Denver, the truck driver and the salesperson who used to call on the liquor store will all be looking for work.

That is a high price to pay for so little convenience."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Beer and everyday life

Jeff Alworth over at Beervana has some interesting thoughts about beer's place in everyday life:

A week or two ago, I was in the County Cork after work having a pint and a lentil burger. In that sun-suffused neighborhood pub, eleven tables were occupied and in the room, eight of the patrons were children under ten. They were accompanied by their parents, nearly all of whom were also having a pint, and by seven, seven-thirty, they had all departed, mostly by foot. Of the many ways in which to gauge what a "beer city" really is, I can think of no better marker. If you have local pubs where families go to dine and enjoy locally-made craft beer, you have deep penetration into the culture of the town. You have young parents who are beer fans and who are rearing their children to regard beer not as a vice, but a healthy, wholesome part of the diet and the pub as a healthy, happy place to see members of your community. The health and roots of such a beer community are robust and sturdy and will support the creation and consumption of local beer for decades to come.

He was talking about Portland. Yet this seems to me a fairly close approximation of what Durango is like at its best. Durango breweries attract their fair share of asinine tourists and college binge drinkers, but they also attract a lot of locals who just like to enjoy a pint.
Alworth touches on beer "not as a vice" but part of everyday life. We need to move toward that, toward a healthy relationship with alcohol that is neither abstemious nor overindulgent, and away from binge-drinking culture. Breweries, I think, do encourage a healthy relationship with alcohol. Most of their patrons aren't going to follow up their pint with a night of Jaeger shots, drunken-driving, wife-beating and child neglect.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A day in the life

A pitcher of Steamworks Slam Dunkel enjoyed on the patio of the brewery's Durango restaurant Monday.

Dunkelweizens have always struck me with a bit of cognitive dissonance: they look dark, almost as dark as a stout, but they taste like wheats. Perhaps not surprisingly, as dunkelweizen translates literally as "dark wheat."

This particular beer, Slam Dunkel (5.9 percent ABV, 21 IBUs), was delicious. It poured a substantial two-finger head out of the pitcher. A light, crisp and refreshing but hardly simplistic taste followed. I'd give it a solid B.

Review: Cinder Cone Red Ale (Deschutes)

Cinder Cone Red Ale holds a special place in my heart as one of the beers, along with Mirror Pond Pale Ale, that got me into craft beer in the first place.

Cinder Cone means spring has sprung. It means the time has come to unearth the backpacking gear and to think about heading to Utah for the weekend. It means hope remains in the nascent baseball season.

Cinder Cone has returned to the shelves for its annual seasonal appearance. It's available fairly widely; most well-stocked liquor stores in Colorado should have it. I wish it were like chiles, and I could freeze some for the long, Cinder Cone-less winter. Sadly, I doubt the taste would hold up.

As the name would suggest, Cinder Cone is a red ale, and in this, it has plenty of competition. Pinstripe Red Ale from Ska is the best-known local offering, but there is also Steamworks Lizard Head Red Ale and Durango Amber Ale. Not to mention the other out-of-state offerings, such as Stone Levitation.

Cinder Cone is brewed with Amarillo and Tettnang hops, along with caramel malt and roasted barley. Both Cinder Cone and Stone Levitation tend toward the hoppier end of red ales, as befits the West Coast breweries from which they come. Levitation, in particular has a piney resin taste that is quite different from Pinstripe, which has a maltier taste. Here's a comparison of a few red ales:

Cinder Cone: 5.4% ABV, 55 IBUs
Stone Levitation: 4.4% ABV, 45 IBUs
Pinstripe Red: 5.2% ABV, 42 IBUs
Lizard Head Red 5.6% ABV, 25 IBUs
Durango Amber: 5.5%, 19 IBUs

The list above taught me a little about my own tastes; I clearly prefer reds on the hoppy side. Cinder Cone has a deep and inviting flavor, suggestive of hops. The flavor profile is much stronger than in many other red ales.

Cinder Cone is brewed by Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery. Deschutes is best known for its impressive session beers like Mirror Pond and Black Butte Porter. Lately, it has moved into some of the most adventurous brewing territory in the country with special releases like The Abyss, an imperial stout that is among the best of its kind, and The Dissident, an arresting Belgian-style sour.

Cinder Cone Red Ale is not unlike many other reds. It just happens to be exceptionally well done. When one wants a break from the usual offerings, Cinder Cone is an excellent choice. B+

Monday, May 4, 2009

Liquor store owners anticipate campaign

The grocery-store sales debate marches onward.

A recap: Under Colorado law, grocery stores are not allowed to sell beverages exceeding 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. In practice, this means grocery stores sell the standard Coors, Bud, etc., all at 3.2 percent ABV, while liquor stores sell all the good beer.

Current law essentially gives liquor stores (along with bars and tasting rooms) a monopoly on selling full-strength beer. This has worked enormously to the advantage of liquor-store owners, who are understandably reluctant to lose their monopoly.

Brewers are siding aggressively with the liquor-store owners, fearing that they would lose access to customers if they had to compete in chain supermarkets.

Everybody expects a bill to resurface to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer. A bill died this legislative session that would have done that. A voter initiative is another real possibility that is thought to have strong chances.

Local brewers would probably feel a hit if the law was loosened, but liquor-store owners are the ones with a gun to their heads.

A group of liquor-store owners gathered recently at Ska Brewing in Durango to plan for the fight, reports Ted Holteen of The Durango Herald.

Soggy Coaster's speculative take: A law allowing grocery stores to sell full-strength beer looks likely to eventually pass. Some of the smaller, weaker liquor stores will close, leaving those with the largest selections alive. Durango breweries will have a tougher time distributing in Denver, but they will survive and continue to prosper.

Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Rants? Leave a comment.