Friday, May 22, 2009

In the Shade

They’re working like bees in a hive over at Iron Hill Brewery’s Maple Shade location (124 East Kings Highway).

The brewing equipment – fermenters, serving tanks, kettle and mash tun – arrived for installation on Tuesday. That’s brewer Chris Lapierre pictured below by the tanks on a flatbed, and the top illustration is a rendering of what’s envisioned as the bar area.

There’s lots of work going on at the site, and co-owner Mark Edelson says the July opening is still the game plan.

A homecoming
We’ve said this before, but we’ll repeat it … If you enjoy fresh beer and like having choices, then extend some credit to Mark and his partners, Kevin Davies and Kevin Finn, for wanting to do business in their home state. (FYI: Chris is a Jersey guy, too).

Iron Hill first went on the map in Delaware, then found more success in Pennsylvania. Maple Shade will be Iron Hill’s eighth location, and New Jersey’s first new brewery in 10 years.

But getting here has been no small feat; Jersey just isn’t a business-friendly state, and a lot of so-called “home-rule” control is put in the hands of municipalities (i.e. the building inspector, the plumbing inspector, the electrical inspector … and sometimes these guys don’t talk to each other, or worse, even like one another). Then there’s the staggeringly expensive license to be a bar; that also comes from the host town. Bottom line: Lots of flaming hoops to jump through to become a business that will put money in local, state and federal pockets.

So when July rolls around, by all means, support the new local brewery.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Here's to your health(care)

Here’s a name right now that you need to know: Max Baucus.

Max is a Big Sky guy, a US senator from Montana. He’s also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. And as we all know the country’s finances are as wobbly as a barstool with uneven legs.

Besides fixing the banks and the jobs scene, Congress and President Obama (who’s been known to enjoy a beer at courtside of an NBA game) are looking for the biggest Band-Aid ever to put on the healthcare system.

That’s why if you’re a beer drinker you need to know about Max (here’s his email). On Wednesday, a news report bubbled up about funding healthcare with higher taxes on beer, liquor and wine. (The current projection is 2 bucks more a case for the consumer; and a shout-out goes to PubScout Kurt Epps for pointing out this story.)

This was probably a train you could hear coming from a long way off: messed up economy – the worst since Big Band tunes were a fresh sound on radio; a messed up healthcare system; changing times; yet another pivotal moment in the nation’s existence. That a higher sin tax would get put on the table is predictable, indeed. (Yet cigarettes have never been pulled as an unsafe product.)

Collision course
But it’s interesting, too, because on Feb. 3, the bill H.R. 836 was introduced, proposing to reduce the $18 per barrel federal beer tax for the big brewers to $9, its pre-George H.W. Bush (Bush the Elder) level, and also halving the $7 tax for craft and pub brewers. (FYI: Jersey’s beer tax is $3.72 a gallon, and for now Gov. Corzine isn’t touching it.) A quick spin over to doesn’t indicate an update on the status of this bill, dubbed the Brewers Excise and Economic Relief Act of 2009 (yes, it forms the acronym BEER).

A little more about BEER: Predictably, it has some folks frowning in a variety of circles, fussing and thrashing about with some figures dropped at the doorstep of Congress: Loss of federal revenue, $1.5 billion; make worse a $200 billion annual toll for dealing with drinking-related health problems; fatten the wallets of foreign beverage companies that account for 90% of US beer production.

On the industry side, the numbers campaign goes like this: brewers, directly or indirectly, pump $190 billion annually into economy and provide more than 1.7 million jobs with wages and benefits of nearly $55 billion.

So with that floating around in the background, there’s the log of healthcare reform tossed onto the fire. This has the potential to become a huge, complex battle, because anyone who has enjoyed the runaround by HorizonBlue Cross knows healthcare needs fixing, and it’s going to take some major money and major reform, but the brewing industry (led by the A-B types) isn't going to just take it. Certainly not after pitching a tax cut.

Already, Coke and Pepsi have wet their pants over a proposal to tax soft drinks (which we support) as a way to kick in toward healthcare. It’s patently absurd to think that soft drinks deserve a pass because there’s no ethyl alcohol in them. When high fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in soft drinks – it’s cheaper than sugar, and corn enjoys some federal propping up via subsidy, about $40 billion worth since the 1990s – the standard size of a bottle of soda jumped a half pint; so now everyone was doing the Dew 20 ounces at a time, or burping from 7-Eleven’s quart-size Big Gulps and 1.5-liter Super Big Gulps. The overconsumption/obesity/diabetes argument applies.

But a higher tax on beer, liquor and wine to pay for healthcare? Well, OK, we understand trying to collect taxes from a number of revenue sources, and we've heard all the complaints about alcohol and health (funny, the wine industry's quick reaction to this was to highlight the health benefits of reds and demand a pass). But here’s one point to consider: Beer, wine and liquor have already paid their dues. In fact, it’s part of New Jersey history: Sea Girt, Aug. 27, 1932, FDR launches his campaign for the White House, vowing to fold the tent on that colossal failure called Prohibition, lift the economy out of the throes of the Great Depression with the help of excise taxes on beer, wine and liquor. You didn’t have to be alive in 1933 to know Prohibition was sent to history’s trash pile. And beer has been paying a lot of Uncle Sam’s bills ever since.

So, we argue that if Congress wants to tap beer for revenue again, the industry deserves something in exchange (and not something that makes just the big brewers happy). And look no further than the three-tier system under which beer became legal again. It’s a confounding collage of regulations that change state to state and has resulted in unfair treatment of small brewers and cozy relationships between distributors and the giant brewers. It has outlived its purpose. But taking on the three-tier sysem isn't going to go over too well, either.

Did we mention the battle is complex?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Beer Wars: The ongoing discussion

If you missed the one-night screening of Beer Wars last month, then perhaps you’d be interested to know the DVD version is coming soon.

That’s from Anat Baron, the director/writer/producer of the film, which trains a spotlight on how craft brewers ply the choppy waters of the U.S. brewing industry and its three-tier system. Anat graciously gave some of her time for a Q&A conducted via email. Her answers arrived on Sunday.

You said you hoped to set into motion a discussion on the topic of small/craft/artisanal brewers and the muscle tactics used by the mega brewers. Do you feel Beers Wars has accomplished that? And if so, how do we sustain that discussion and steer it toward producing change?
A: I don't think that we've reached a wide enough audience. So far, most of the people who saw the film were already craft beer lovers, and so most of the story was familiar to them. I made the film in the hopes of attracting a more mainstream audience. Not necessarily mainstream beer drinkers but people who care about consumerism, capitalism and the future of this country. I know that sounds very grandiose, but to me what's happening in the beer industry is similar to what's going on in many other industries. How do we get a bigger audience? The old-fashioned way: through word of mouth. People telling other people to watch this film. That it will make them think about the choices that they make. The more people see it and talk about it, the bigger the buzz. And then we can start a meaningful discussion. In the mainstream media.

Q: The film met with some harsh criticism in some circles, and you defended your work on the Web site. Do you think those critics missed the point, getting hung up on presentation, and failed to appreciate that, given the current arrangement with the big brewers and three-tier system, there isn't a remote chance of leveling the playing field without some Herculean efforts/major changes?
A: When you make a film, you expect criticism. What surprised me was that most people missed the point. They wanted me to make THEIR version of Beer Wars. I chose to make this film with the characters I did in order to make a point. If other people want to see brewers like Ken Grossman or Fritz Maytag as central characters, they can make their own film. THIS film is about the challenges that the small brewers face, and it uses two characters to show them. The three-tier system continues to be the biggest obstacle to growth for small brewers. The dependence of most distributors on their big brewer “partners” creates a playing field that is completely lopsided. Yes, things are “better” than they were in late 2005 when I stated filming, but they are in no way closer to level. I think the question is WHEN will we change (not abolish, change) the three-tier system, not IF. And all change begins with a few voices that keep getting louder.

Are you satisfied that Beer Wars is part of the record on this topic, something any individual or group can point to as a reference?
A: I certainly hope so. I made the film so there would be a reference point. Anyone could watch it and understand the issues. And hopefully begin to think about what it means not only to them personally but to American business overall.

Q: Some people have asked when the DVD release will be. Looks like it is indeed in the works, is that correct? And for those who have seen the film already, what can they expect on the DVD?
A: Yes, (the) DVD is in production. I am rushing it out because so many theaters had technical issues on April 16th that I wanted to make things right. The DVD will include the film, the panel discussion and some deleted scenes. We hope to start shipping in early June.

Q: Will the film be screened again? And can you say what it cost to pull off the April 16th presentation?
A: We have a theatrical run in June at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. And more to be announced. As to the cost of the April 16th event, I signed a confidentiality agreement, so all I can say is that there was a significant investment to get the word out.

Michael Moore made Pets or Meat as a short-film follow-up to Roger & Me. Do you plan to revisit Beer Wars with some kind of follow-up down the road?
A: I think that the story is ripe for some sort of “sequel.” I'm not sure if it'll be a film but at least a TV or Web follow-up.

Q: Have you stayed in touch with Rhonda Kallman and Sam Calagione (the two brewers/beer companies spotlighted in Beer Wars) since the film was screened?
A: Yes, we have spoken on several occasions and plan to keep in touch going forward. I actually spoke to both of them this past week.

Q: We watched the film in a sparsely filled theater in southern New Jersey (the scant audience is indicative of craft beer’s struggles in the Garden State, plus we have a Bud brewery in Newark). Do you have attendance figures, either hard counts or anecdotal, to show where the film drew the best crowds?
A: The film and event screened in (most of) the 440 theaters spread out across cities and suburbs in most states. We did better in big cities like Boston, New York (and) San Francisco than suburban multiplexes.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Some news out of Climax Brewing …

We caught up with Dave Hoffmann on Saturday as he was filtering the maibock that’s going on tap this week at Basil T’s in Toms River, where Dave is the hired-gun brewer.

First things first. We got a preview taste of that Perle-hopped maibock (we had the not quite carbonated, but still quite good, version); the beer’s malty and rich (6.7% ABV), with some signature toasty and caramel notes that don’t overwhelm.

Dave’s been tweaking this recipe here and there for a while but feels like this rendition, with a lighter munich malt than past versions, nails it. So much so that Dave’s thinking about doing a maibock next year under his Hoffmann lager label for his Climax brewery.

And speaking of Climax – and that news tidbit – Dave says his Hoffmann Helles is now a year-round beer.

The beer has always done well for Climax, and Dave says that for a while he’d been thinking about moving it from the seasonal lineup to the flagship brew list. What sealed the deal was a March beer feature (à la the NCAA tourney’s final four) in the Star-Ledger in which the helles was hailed a winner. Dave says he’s been super-busy since then, working to keep the helles in kegs and on store shelves in the signature half-gallon jugs he uses for bottling. He’s had to put his four original 10-barrel fermenters back into service (despite the 10-barrel capacity, he maxes them out at 8 barrels for production purposes).

It’s good to be busy.