Beers with a Stoic: Going away, coming back, and more about what defines a “brewery”

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Mr. Big: Do you want the good news or the bad news?

Me: I haven’t seen the sun for two weeks, so how about the good news?

Mr. Big: Hey, guess what? We’re getting the band back together.

Me: And the bad news?

Mr. Big: You’re no longer in the band.

Me: And the bad news?

One of my favorite axioms has to do with the importance of advance planning.

“Before you can make a comeback, first you must go away.”

“Going away” can be achieved in various ways, either physically or mentally. A larger consideration is the duration of one’s absence, which needs to be long enough that the audience has had time to forget the foibles, and selectively recall the choicer bits.

In any event, there is a corollary to the preceding: “When the time arrives to come back, one’s prospects for success rely in large measure on how much was learned while he was away.”

My first period in the wilderness came by my own choice and lasted from 2016 – 2018, ending with the advent of Pints&union.

Within a few months of under-employment, my reading had tripled, and I watched probably a hundred documentaries on YouTube about history, art, travel, geography and literature.

I was able to experience our area’s small breweries, bars and restaurants for what they were, not as potential customers for NABC beer. I made new friends and renewed ties with older acquaintances. My mom’s health worsened, and I was able to be with her before she died.

The lessons were unrelenting, and that’s the way I like it.

So here I am again, at loose ends, and this time my chronological attainment as a slightly more elderly “old white guy” than I was before adds a fresh twist, in that I can elect to “retire” and draw social security at any point I wish – not the full payout for a while yet (I’ll be 64 in August), but enough to match the amount of money I was making at Pints&union, while allowing my part-time Food & Dining Magazine work to continue, as well as various other side hustles (if they develop).

The way you people build your fantasy football rosters or count sheep during sleepless nights, well, that’s the way I think about having twenty taps and getting to pick the beers that pour from them. What’s the ideal balance between light and dark, high and low ABVs, malty and hoppy, foreign and domestic?

The brain still works fairly well, and while “retiring” (read: accepting a form of guaranteed minimum income) wouldn’t change much for me, there remains the certainty that I can build a profitable, unique beer program for someone. I always believe the next opportunity will become the best yet; go here to see where I’ve been: The Résumé / CV

My Hip Hops column last week at Food & Dining Magazine was titled Pardon the (Fermentation) Interruption, which I imagined was clever, but in retrospect it may have been a bit too oblique. If you’ll indulge me, here’s a brief further explanation.

Long ago there was a locally owned café near our home, and all the cooking was done on site – at least until the evening in question when I praised the ravioli to our server: “My regards to the chef!”

She looked around nervously, then leaned over and whispered, “thank you, but just so you know, Chef Boyardee’s kitchen is in back of the Sysco truck.”

I’ve kept her confidence all this time, and tell the story now only because I imagine a great many of us have experienced something similar while dining out (i.e., learning that a dish we imagined was cooked from scratch actually wasn’t), and this analogy helps to illustrate the point of last week’s column: If only half the brewing process takes place at a brewery, is it still a brewery?

As this shortcut pertained to an outfit called Granite City, ten years ago the Brewers of Indiana Guild (BIG) said no: ”All critical phases of the beer making process (must) occur within the state of Indiana.”

I’m mildly surprised that no one delivered the rejoinder I was expecting: But Roger, this doesn’t mean it has to occur in one building, just in one state.

Correct. This was BIG’s formulation, as suiting specific “larger” purposes.

For instance, right now if Upland Brewing Company so chose, it might install fermenters at its regional taprooms, prepare wort in Bloomington, and truck it to Indianapolis, Columbus and Jeffersonville for completion. But this would be profoundly cost-ineffective, given that the rules governing distribution in Indiana allow Upland to deliver beer to itself, which it does already.

None of this is to say that shipping prepared wort from Iowa to waiting fermenters in Ohio suggests the completed beer will be inferior. My personal experience with Granite City suggests mid-tier flavor results, placing such “Half-Brewed-Here-Beer” on a par with the “meh” emanating from so many 100% on-site brewhouses these days.

And yes, it is true that in all probability an ordinary bloke neither knows nor cares that a “local brewery” is cool-side (fermentation) only, although he might be offended if his favorite pizzeria, which has always makes its own dough, decides instead to procure it from a supplier and leave existing menu purity touts unchanged.

Last week I suggested alternatives to half-brewing on-site. To me, that’s what it is in plain English if all you’re doing is fermenting someone else’s wort: half-brewing, and a sadly gimmicky approach.

Why do I feel this way?

In my view, our gains over a period of forty years in promoting a better beer culture in America owe to substance and essences and integrity, not the same marketing hoo-hah and low common denominators that degraded beer and brewing in the first place.

At some level, start-ups should go all in – or go home. Buy real brewing equipment, find your brewer, start slow, master the process and build from there. Create a brand or two sustainable over the long haul, as NABC did two decades ago with Community Dark and Elector. Sell guest drafts, but keep them differentiated from your own.

As an aside, I realize it isn’t fashionable at present to dismiss (as I do) ephemeral one-off beers brewed to taste like gin cocktails, or aged in sauerkraut barrels. Sorry; not sorry – but they’re destined to be forgotten even if the latter prove ideal for brining weenies. Can we please go back to thinking about things that are built to last?

That’s all for now, but don’t forget the reasons why you needn’t waste your draft lines on cheap domestic lager.

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