Once-thriving breweries are now struggling, and consumer tastes are changing. Hmm.
Since I have no active social-media account (this column’s Twitter feed exists almost solely to post the latest entry every month), you shall be the victims of my brain droppings, as George Carlin once put it in a book title, on the current craft-beer landscape.
Let us begin where I’m sitting now … figuratively, at least: It’s the time of year when maibocks have hit the shelves. A bock is a style of German lager with its own interesting history and various styles that have spawned from it. The maibockis a paler version of its cousin, but stronger and more hoppy (by German flavor standards, mind you). There is some dispute as to how the style came into being, but many sources claim it was made in celebration of spring weather, and that people wanted the qualities of a bock (like its lovely browned-bread flavors), but something more quaffable, yet strong at the same time. Enegren Brewing, one of my faves, has one out right now that I’ve picked up multiple times already at Trader Joe’s, and I would highly recommend you do the same. The Hofbräu and Einbecker versions are available at Total Wine if you want a comparison point from Deutschland. It’s a lesser-known style, but well worth picking up to go with grilled sausages—or even a nice grilled Black Forest ham-and-Swiss sandwich.
Next up: Many larger craft breweries are currently going through some interesting transitions. Some of this is understandable, after two-plus years of a global pandemic, yet other craft breweries I love were able to pivot, brilliantly, despite that.
The main brewery on my mind is Modern Times. A couple of months ago, they announced rather suddenly that they were closing down a good number of their locations, including locations with brewhouses in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. They made a big push to expand just before the pandemic; the timing may have played a role in these closures. One other thing may have played a role: Founder Jacob McKean stepped down as CEO after multiple allegations of a toxic work environment.
While it’s certainly good that the culture at Modern Times is apparently getting cleaned up, from a beer-lover’s perspective, the company’s problems are concerning, because they have made so many good beers across wildly different styles; they have done so much fun experimentation with beers (especially barrel-aged beers); and they have great locations to enjoy many of their beers.
A few other San Diego breweries have been rattling around inside my head recently—namely, Stone Brewing, Ballast Point, AleSmith and Green Flash. These are all considered to be part of the first wave of craft brewing in San Diego—and they all have become less appealing to me in recent times. Regarding Ballast Point and Green Flash, this has had more to do with acquisitions. Ballast Point was bought and sold after a push by a large conglomerate to nationalize the brand—at the expense of cheapening the product. The current owners say they are getting back to Ballast’s roots, though, so there is a chance for a comeback; I will reserve judgement for now.
As for Green Flash, they acquired the once-ascendant Alpine Beer Co., and (if you’ll forgive the expression) absolutely shat the bed when trying to make its beers on a larger scale. They got better at it eventually, but none of it comes close to what Alpine’s beer one was. As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, Alpine’s founder re-created the originals with the opening of McIlhenney Brewing in the original location. Go there instead.
Stone Brewing and AleSmith are somewhat similar in my mind, because they seem to have sold their souls to follow the dream of becoming bigger breweries. I feel like the exodus of master brewer Mitch Steele, in 2016, was the beginning of the problems for Stone. He brewed the beers that excited me and drew me to their World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido. Outside of a few exceptions, I’ve found the magic to be lacking since then. Frankly, when I start seeing lime-and-salt Mexican lagers, I know the Stone I loved has left me behind.
AleSmith’s allure has similarly dulled over time to the point where I don’t even buy their products anymore. There are only so many chances I will give a brewery before I stop trying—and it takes a lot for me to come back. I hope that can be the case with each one of the above-mentioned breweries, but I will not be holding my breath. There are so many alternatives to choose from, after all.
I haven’t even touched on the whole anti-harassment/anti-sexism movement throughout the craft-brewery world that was sparked by Brienne Allan’s Instagram account many months ago, where so many accounts of rotten workplace behavior were posted. Fuck that kind of behavior! Other than that, I have nothing else to say, because I’d just be adding another bearded white dude’s opinion into the mix. There is more than enough of that on social media; it’s among a plethora of reasons I exist on social media as little as I possible.
I also have other thoughts on current beer trends. Other than me saying, “More lagers; hooray!” those thoughts will need to be held for a later date. If you desperately want my opinion somehow, contact me through this page or my lightly used Twitter account, and I’ll be glad to hold forth on whatever relevant topic.
Until then, find a cold beer for the incoming hot weather—and join me in being glad to be a beer-lover alive at this moment.
So where did Steele go after Stone?
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