Thursday, March 24, 2011

Uno's cask event

When there are big beer festivals happening all around, this one, Pizzeria Uno Chicago Grill and Brewery's cask event, has always proved to be a nice oasis, a retreat from the crush of the crowds.

It happens at noon on Saturday at the brewpub in Metuchen. PubScout Kurt Epps has the beer lineup.

Growth, choice & is there ever too much?

New Jersey added two craft breweries last year, a period in which the total number of US breweries jumped 8 percent and the percentage of production volume and sales dollars both rose by double digits for craft brewers, according to the craft beer industry's trade group.

Three months into 2011, one thing is certain: There's plenty of beer to slake any kind of thirst, a veritable cornucopia of styles, brands and flavors that for some has begun to raise the question of whether consumers are becoming overwhelmed by the Great Wall of Choice.

The short answer is sort of; the long answer is nope with a because. In fact, the abundance of choice, says Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, could buttress brand loyalty.

In a statement issued ahead of the Craft Brewers Conference, which kicked off Wednesday in San Francisco, the Colorado-based Brewers Association, says small and independent brewers produced 11 percent more volume last year over 2009 and saw retail sales dollars increase by 12 percent over 2009. That translates to growth of more than 1 million barrels of beer.

The number of craft brewers also rose from 1,587 in 2009 to 1,716 last year, reflecting the largest number of breweries in the US since the turn of the 20th century. (There were 1,759 breweries operating last year, when you include the non-craft ones.)

"Prohibition caused a dramatic decline in the number of breweries in the United States, but the number of breweries is now at an all-time high," says BA director Paul Gatza. "With well over 100 new brewery openings in 2010, plus 618 breweries in planning stages, all signs point to continued growth for the industry."

In the Garden State, production brewer New Jersey Beer Company (North Bergen) and Port 44 Brew Pub (Newark) launched their brands last year, raising the state's craft brewery count to 20. Meanwhile, four applications for production brewery licenses were pending before state regulators at the end of last year.

That's good news to anyone who thinks the more choices, the better. Like Pat Vaccaro, a Rutgers University student from Long Branch, who talked craft beer recently while browsing a reasonably well-stocked (but not a chart-topper of selection) cold case at a Wegmans in Monmouth County.

Overwhelming? "Not at all," Pat says. "I've had 90 percent of what they have here. So long as it doesn't have fruit in it, I'll drink it."

Still there's this item in Beer Business Daily that wonders if the price paid for aisles and cold boxes teeming with craft brands is an exercise in diminished return.

Schwartz, the Swarthmore psych professor and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004), by and large gives the beer industry a pass from his premise that a plethora of choices turns consumers off, makes them unable to chose, and when they manage to do so, they're nagged by the thought that they perhaps didn't actually make the best choice after all.

The reason beer gets an exemption: choosing a brew – sixpack or single bottle – from the wall of eye-popping labels, and picking one you're ultimately unhappy with, is an error that's easy to correct, easy to move beyond given the lower price than a car, computer or clothes. Plus, with those latter items there's the expectation of keeping them for a while.

However, Schwartz, who discussed the topic during a phone interview last week, says the hyper array of beer choices could end up favoring well-known or familiar brands (or beers that have the most engaging packaging or labels for that matter). Opting for the familiar is a way of dealing with a problem that seemingly can't be solved, steering away from a random choice.

"Nothing will bring brand loyalty back faster than a proliferation of options," he says.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Do this: Toast Michael Jackson on Sunday

This item takes a lead from a Charlie Papazian Facebook post:

Sunday would have been Beer Hunter Michael Jackson's 69th birthday. The Briton known for traversing the world in pursuit of beers of all stripes died in August 2007, leaving a void in the discourse about great beer.

His impact on folks who enjoy beer, like his beer travels, was far-reaching. Here in the Garden State, Jackson formed some tight bonds, including friendships with Mark Haynie of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and Gary Monterosso, a onetime columnist for Mid-Atlantic and the host of Still Crazy After All These Beers web shows.

Jackson also featured Dave Hoffmann's Climax brews in his published beer guides and suggested River Horse brew a Belgian tripel and call it Tripel Horse. He gave Flying Fish's ESB an endorsement in the brewery's guestbook when FF was just a half-year into its brewing operations.

So, as Charlie suggests in his Facebook note, Sunday is MJ's birthday: raise a glass of your favorite brew to toast and remember a champion of all things beer.

NJBC looking back & moving forward

Hudson County's only craft brewer is closing in on its first anniversary.

And with that, there's certainly cause to celebrate. New Jersey Beer Company began brewing April 28 last year, then launched the brand in May at the Copper Mine Pub (North Arlington) and The Iron Monkey (Jersey City), two craft beer bars that have shown the brewery some love.

Since then, the North Bergen beer-maker has worked to carve out a regional market and build a local fan base as it navigates the sometimes-stormy straits (i.e. the brewery's crippled bottler) of being a start-up business.

On the first day of this spring, a foursome doing a beer-circuit tour of North Jersey stopped by the brewery's tasting room; moments before, a fan from Jersey City restocked with two growlers of 1787 Abbey Single. Outside, a truck driver who spied a guy leaving the brewery with a freshly filled growler took advantage of the red light at Tonnelle Avenue and 43rd Street to strike up a conversation about his favorite NJBC brews.

Heartwarming moments indeed, but founder Matt Steinberg (above) is keeping a practical focus as he looks forward to toasting the first anniversary. Between brewery tours, Matt took some time to talk about the first year, some of the rough spots and some of what lies ahead.

BSL: How are you marking the occasion, the first anniversary?
MS: I haven't got so far as to plan anything yet. But I think I'm definitely going to talk to Vito (Forte) about doing something at the Copper Mine. That was the first event, the first time our beer was served. It went on that weekend at the Iron Monkey as well. They were our first two customers at the same time. We did a second launch party at the Monkey. There's a decent chance we'll look both of them up and talk about doing an anniversary celebration, a typical (meet the) brewers night kind of thing.

BSL: You opened with a flight of three flagship beers, the 1787 Abbey Single, Garden State Stout and Hudson Pale Ale. What else did you stir into the mix, what seasonals?
MS: We added two. We had the Wee Heavy, which, I guess, is our winter seasonal. Then we did a second running of Sixty Shilling Mild out of that, a Scottish style pub ale, real mild, like a 3.2, 3.5 (ABV) kind of ale. We didn't sell that outside the brewery; we had it here, basically sold growlers of it. We used it for some events, too.

Ideally our spring seasonal would be out by now but it hasn't happened that way. The next thing coming out will be an IPA; in theory it could be in our next run of brewing. We may try to squeeze something out in the summer, too ... It might be awhile before we add something into the full-time rotation.

BSL: Let's talk about being a start-up. There's some choppy water that comes along with that. What are some of the hurdles you've encountered?
MS: It's politics; it always comes down to money. It's all the things you didn't think you were gonna have to pay for, and kegs that don't come back and you have to go repurchase ... the taxation at all those various levels you try to anticipate; things like insurance cost an absolute fortune, a lot more than they probably should. Things like that have definitely played a part.

BSL: And getting on sound footing with your brewing system?
MS: I definitely think we've ironed out a couple little issues we had with the brewing. In the first few batches, there were some glitches in the system, things we had to figure out workarounds for, figure out how we were going to do things, and equipment breaking down ... stuff like that here and there, just the typical kind of stuff you would run into in a brewery and a lot of other manufacturing kinds of business.

BSL: The equipment breakdowns ... the unhappy thing there is your bottler isn't in use anymore.
MS: Yeah, you'd think you'd get more than six weeks out of a brand-new piece of equipment.
BSL: What happened with it?
MS: The thing was breaking from day one. It took us about six weeks to get the thing to properly fill bottles. We had parts falling off, breaking off. We literally broke almost every damn piece just in the normal operation. The manufacturer put some wrong parts in, which ultimately ruined the fill head. So it got to the point where we were getting maybe one out of every six or eight bottles that would actually have 12 ounces of beer and a cap on it. It got to the point where we couldn't properly fill bottles with that thing. You could fill them faster with a hand bottler, but you can't send stuff out to market with a hand filler.

BSL: So what's going to happen with the bottler? Are you going to be able to sell?
MS: I may throw it on ProBrewer – see if somebody else wants to take a crack at it – for a horrible loss, considering it's a 6-week-old piece of equipment. Worst case, we'll sell it for scrap, see what we can get out of it.

BSL: And you're committed to being back in bottles?
MS: I think we have to. That's just what the market is around here; we have to be able to supply it. I sit there and see whole lot of untapped market. It's got to be dealt with ... I don't know if I'd add another year-round beer until we have the bottling situation fixed. That's really what kind of determines a year-round beer, something you're going to put in bottles and have out on the shelves all the time.

And frankly, that's the higher priority right now. I'd rather fix that and get our three flagships back out in bottles rather than worry about bringing a fourth beer out into the rotation. Seasonals are a way we can get something out there in a small run and at least be doing some new stuff.

BSL: Let's talk about something more positive, where you've solidly made inroads, where people like you the most right now, your fan base.
MS: Up north, in Hudson County and Jersey City in particular. More beer has moved in that town than anywhere else. Last summer, we definitely had some good runs down the shore, in particular the Abbey I know seemed to do really well in the beach kind of towns. The Philly area has done all right for us. After that, it's really kind of spotty, it's a couple here, a couple there. But, you know, we're trying to bring them up where we can.

BSL: In terms of getting your message out, how many events have you done in the past year?
MS: Seems like back in October we were doing two a week at least. Our typical meet-the-brewers nights at bars, I would say we did at least 20 or so of those and then we probably had another half dozen in festivals. Then there's some random stuff here and there, more like charity sponsorships where our beer ended up getting served.

BSL: Are you glad you go into this business?
MS: Yeah, absolutely. No regrets at all. I certainly wish we had done some things differently, but hindsight is good like that. I certainly didn't do everything perfectly, a few things I wish we could have back, but never once did I go "I can't believe I did this."

BSL: You can take pride in that you brought a local craft brand back to Hudson County (Mile Square Golden Ale and Amber Ale were mid-1990s craft brands of the now-defunct Hoboken Brewery.)
MS: I'm trying to. Right now, we're still in the weeds enough that we've got to get over the hump. So I'm going to save the celebrating for another day. I think we're well on our way. I'm happy with the way we've grown the brand. I think the beer's steadily gotten better and better throughout. More and more people are having it now than had it before. I'm really looking forward to the summer when people start flooding New Jersey to head down to the beaches. I'm really hoping we can make sure they're drinking our beer when they're doing it.

Tara Bossert of Jersey City (middle picture) holds growlers of 1787 Abbey Single. She discovered NJBC through Dorrian's. "I prefer to support entrepreneurs and local businesses because I really think it helps form a community. It's always great when you have local businesses around. It connects a company with an actual person, versus a big conglomerate like Bud," Tara says.

Foursome (from left in third photo) Jim and Jeanne Woodhouse and Judy and Frank Sharkey sample some Garden State Stout.