(tiny) bubbles in my beer, pt. 4

“Should the best stay small?” was the title of the response piece to the New York Times article. It was in reference to Hill Farmstead Brewery capping production at 5000 barrels a year; and it wasn’t a rhetorical so much as an unanswered question.

Far be it from me to deny the Interwebs more vitally important bloviation on the sacred cows of craft beer: onward, citizens. It’s answerin’ time.

I need to state up front that I have not been one of the lucky to try a Hill Farmstead beer – I hope to rectify that in the near future, and, lacking any firsthand experience of the product, I am willing to take all the lauds, praise, lines of devoted waiting for growlers, and high scores on the Interweb beer rating sites at face value.

But even without the beer, we can talk about the adjectives in the titular question – “best” and “small.”

Small is fairly easy – it’s quantifiable. Small is less than big. If you’re the Brewer’s Association, “small” is any number of barrels fewer than Boston Beer Co. produced that year. And I think most of us can agree that there isn’t an inherent causal relationship between the physical footprint of a brewhouse or the capacity of its tanks and the quality of its beer.

Which isn’t to cast any aspersions on small breweries – they inspire cultish and/or hyperlocal devotion, they tell a great David-and-Goliath type of story that everybody can get behind. Some of my all-time favorite beers and brewery stories come from small operations: De Dolle, Dupont, Cantillon, Boon …

“Best” is wiggly, though – it’s more subjective and imprecise. Composed as it is of perception, it can be at the mercy of factors beyond control, or at least somewhat beyond consciousness.

My Belgian-heavy list of examples above may be a good example of one of those factors that features large in this discussion: the psychology of scarcity. Ditto the clamoring of out-of-town friends for Surly, or the way I hoard New Glarus beers every time I cross the Wisconsin border, or how I’m renting a U-Haul the next time I go to Jester King.

This kind of confirmation bias, right or wrong, plays to the strengths of small breweries and those with limited distribution. Scarcity and demand feed each other in a hoppy ouroboros, reputation and price spike, perhaps a black market even develops. The natural, subconscious tendency of any person who pays $85 for a six pack or buys a black market growler or makes a pilgrimage to stand in line for four hours to get a glass of beer is going to be to believe that it is the best beer in the world.

So, should the best stay small? Sure, if that’s what the small want. Mr. Hill seems to have a handle on that:

“I didn’t start this brewery so I could keep growing and move it away from here; that wasn’t the point,” he says. “It wouldn’t be fun anymore. It wouldn’t have purpose or meaning.”

I admire that commitment to sustainable, smart growth and clear long-term vision. With Hill as with De Dolle, or Worth Brewing, or Hess Brewing, or dozens of other garage-sized operations I’ve been lucky enough to drink in and read about, I think there’s real, undeniable charm in small breweries.

But I will say that some of my personal, subjective, at-the-mercy-of-factors, best beers come from bigger breweries, too; and farms of huge cylindroconical tanks full of beer are pretty damn cool to look at.

So I guess we’re back to where we started.

Cheers, citizens.

20 thoughts on “(tiny) bubbles in my beer, pt. 4

  1. I seem to agree with these post, and this one is the same. It’s a good marketing strategy to make your beer a cult classic that is unavailable, like the southpark episode where cartman won’t let anyone in his themepark.

  2. Well put, Dawson. I enjoy the freedom that small operations have to experiment, and I think that’s important to preserve. But I think it’s important to preserve overall, not for any individual brewery. I care about the diversity of available beer as a whole, but if my favorite local brewer wants to go big and get his or her products out so more people can enjoy them, then more power to them. If their ability to do something novel suffers, well, as long as someone else can step up to that plate, I’m not going to complain.

  3. I think that the small craft brewer who measures success mainly by how big his brewery can grow misses the point, as does the small craft brewer who limits his production because he doesn’t want to grow to a level that allows reasonable access to his product to those who really wish they could have access. If your product is good, then some middle ground should be available and you should still be able to retain the craft brewing connotation and your original location. Is contract brewing prohibited in the craft brewing level?

  4. This is exactly why I love tasting beer blind. It removes all of the bullshit so all that’s left is the beer. Keep the posts coming Dawson!

  5. I think you might be talking about different kinds of “best.” Those small beers do inspire the beer geek in all of us to head out on a quest or a pilgrimage across town, so I think we are talking about a whole different experience. When I will camp out this spring in Western Austria to hit up monastery for a great brew it will be the entire event and desire. When I head to my local brewpub, 1516 in downtown Vienna it will be to share something with friends and when I brew later this month, it will be to prep for my greatest day of the year. Double Draft Day, with my beer (double IPA w/ Marris Otter) on tap I will host a draft for our fantasy baseball league. All three have a critical part of how I enjoy life and none of them are comparable.

    Apple to oranges, wheat to rye.

    No best here.

  6. To me, so much of it is about the “why.” Crooked Stave, producing brett beers in barrels, would have a ridiculous outlay and risk if they bought, filled, and aged their beers by the tens of thousands. But, as they have found great success, they have grown significantly. New Glarus lives by the whole, local, slow food movement. Those are both highly respectable.

    Others, I am suspicious, they could produce their beers in far greater quantities. But, the hype is incredible free marketing, people pay to go the release festivals, rarity breeds higher scores, more attention, etc. I am cynical that these breweries are more motivated by economics- nothing wrong with that, they’re brilliant business people, breweries open to make money, but I imagine if I were to trade or pay ridiculously for these beers, I would find them no better than some mass distributed beers.

    Hence, blind tasting is an outstanding and just way to determine “best.” Anything short of that standard is met with my full skepticism.

  7. This is going in a different direction – I was struck by what the bar manager, Jeff Baker said: “They’re hoppy, but they’re not super-bitter and they don’t exhaust your palate.” I know exactly what he’s talking about when he says “exhaust your palate.” My friends and I have gotten together with a bunch of different beers and do a tasting. Inevitable we hit that beer that feels “exhausting.” It’s the word we use and it is reassuring it’s not just me and my small posse that get that feeling. Some beers are so in your face, there’s no sorting it out and trying to is exhausting. I try to see it as weight lifting for the palate, but my brain says ‘what are you doing? You’re never going to drink that beer again.’ I marvel at bjcp dudes (and ladies) that have to exercise all that discernment. My tongue and brain would get beat down after awhile.

  8. Brian B hit something that I was going to comment myself on with the Southpark reference. I am a cynic so I suspect some of these very small brew operations stay small or limit their distribution to create more and more of the cult following so it increases the perception of exclusiveness behind their product. I’m sure some of them can’t expand due to not enough resources, perhaps its too difficult to make the same quality product in larger batches, perhaps some of it is just the lack of time and ability to do what they want vs paying off debts or investors before doing what they really want to do.

    Now some of these guys can’t create enough quality beer and distribute it how they want, like the mentioned Surly, and some of them distribute over a broad enough area (New Glarus) that it’s not really difficult to get your hands on most of their beers if you set up a trading partner or the like. I think that a lot of the opinions of some of these cult favorite beers however may change if they were done in a blind taste test like Matt suggests. I’ll make one of those suggestions now, Surly Darkness as beloved as it is and I have stood in line outside the brewery twice in a row now is very good stuff. Is it worth 20 dollars a bottle? It is because I choose to pay for it but is it a 20 dollar bottle of stout? Is it better than some of the 5 dollar bottles out stout out there? No, it is not. I’ve done some blind tasting of stouts, while I could tell which one I suspected was Darkness due to the familiarity of it, most of the other folks that participated rated some five and ten dollar regularly or more easily available stouts better- and assumed those were Darkness. This does not mean that Darkness is not a world class example by any stretch of the imagination, but it does illustrate the price point disparity and relative scarceness is not an indicative illustration of outright good tasting beer.

    I’ve had some great brews from tiny brewing companies and some terrible ones, as well as from larger craft breweries. I just look at announcements in the vein of we will never grow because we want to concentrate on brewing good beer instead of focusing on distribution to be a cop out in most instances.

    • I like to tell myself that a lot of the good, small, in-vogue brewers don’t expand because they thing their beer deserves to be sort of coveted. Sure a big brewer can make amazing beers, but all too often in rural areas like my town their beer are hidden in a corner case, and well past its prime, where as the smaller more local brewers tend to have a nice turnaraound. I know I would rather have someone travel to me to have my beer on my terms as opposed to sending my treasured craft out in a scary world. Like Micheal Jackson said in his tv series, something about the brewers being like worried mothers, “will people like it, will it be treated properly?”.

      • I will comment that I’ve seen plenty of tiny places have their brews mishandled or kept for far too long. (I’ve seen some packaged dates approaching a year for the tiny breweries.) Sadly the fact that places don’t understand keeping beer or can’t support it makes things difficult for all. And it is not an easy thing for a brewer to control once it passes their gates for storing of beer. For that I feel for the breweries. Its tough to live up to a .com rating if your stuff is a year past the package date and people are sampling it.

        To refine I suppose my thoughts is that I’ve had some tiny brewer’s beers that I’ve felt are world class examples of the style or just plain delicious beer. They are not well known so they do not have the “stress on operating capacity”

        I don’t mind when breweries limit their capacity to the extent again it’s explained in a way that it does not come off as a simple marketing ploy. I don’t mind the marketing ploy angle so much but I look at saying we can’t expand as a bit of suspicion in my own opinion.

        The size of the brewery to me does not matter as much as the taste of the beer. I’m fine with most of the business models out there. I just try not to judge the taste of a beer based off the size of it or the the distribution size of it. Exceptions are always there of course for all things.

  9. Should be substance not size. Not to beat the dead horse, but it’s about the preservation of the craft itself-Just like crafting cheese, maple syrup, and of course fly fishing gear. I commend Mr. Hill for having the balls to stand up for what he believes in. He must have true passion for what he does.

    For me, I start getting pissed off when Big Beer starts using puppies and veterans as an excuse to buy their beer which they can’t actually market anymore. Being a vet myself, I’d rather someone buy me a New Glarus or Cigar City rather than a Bud.

    Sorry MD, had to vent some frustration.
    Cheers to you and our glorious bubbles in our beer!

  10. One other example of a brewery limiting supply to its advantage: Lift Bridge’s mini-donut beer at the Minnesota state fair. With limited time, and rationed daily quantity, and novelty buzz (ooh there’s cinnamon sugar on the lip of my plastic cup!), it became the “must try” beer at the fair. I went on the first day and had two with no waiting – despite all the hype, it was a great beer perfect for the time and place. If I’d waited in line as many did, would it have tasted better still?
    I don’t think Hillstead Farms is being disingenuous. He has the cred. and he has his priorities and the beer is apparently good enough to allow him to achieve his aim of staying connected to his roots and keeping his farm in the family. It’s refreshing to read a story of someone – anyone – who has enough. It’s refreshing to find a model that serves to object to the pervasive idea that everything must grow and expand as much as it can.

  11. I’ll leave the question of which beers/breweries/brewers are “best” to others, but as a Vermonter I have to recommend Hill Farmstead for another reason- the location is stunning. Not a bad place to stand in line if you must. Being small and locally or regionally available is part of Vermont-as-a-brand and Vermont-as-a-destination thing- which is a big part of our state economy. I’m lucky enough to directly access Hill Farmstead, the Alchemist, Fiddlehead, and many others. But at the end of my day, the best, most unique “artisanal” beers are mine, available in my garage kegerator at an undisclosed location in beautiful Vermont.

  12. I agree, there’s just something so enticing about small. When I step into a small brewery, I feel like I am witnessing the owner’s creativity, the freedom to experiment, the passion they have for what they are doing. You can hear the story behind each of their beers, what their intentions were, what they used, and I feel that much closer to their product. They exemplify the out of reach dream a lot of us homebrewers have of “someday starting my own brewery.” They are so easy to root for.

    I was in Paris not too long ago and had a great experience at a tiny tiny restaurant. This place had 4 tables, it was owned and run by a husband (the chef) and a wife (the server). There was no set menu. They served whatever was fresh that day at the market. Their dishes were unique, creative takes on traditional french cuisine, and each had a personal touch. You could see the husband over the counter in the kitchen furiously concocting away, while the wife hustled around the tiny restaurant. They have no desire to grow, or hire new people…4 tables, and the chef creates what he dreams up with the materials he has that day. That’s it. The meal was a great, although far from perfect. But I’m dying to go back. It was an intimate experience, and I get that same experience from some small breweries. From my vantage point, I witness their growth, maturation and transformation. In some cases what I see and experience may not be encouraging or bode well for the future of the brewery, but at least I know the story.

  13. Hey, all of craft beer is “small,” even the largest craft breweries are a drop in the bucket next to A-B and the like. What we as consumers need to separate is the size of the brewery and the quality of the product. Just because a brewery is small doesn’t mean its beer is any good. There are a few brewpubs in my area that make some pretty so-so stuff that I will only drink if I have to.

    The thing that I really hate about craft beer is the craze over scarce beers (Heady Topper, Dark Lord, Hopslam, etc.). Why people want to pay obscene amounts of money for these beers is beyond me. While I would love to try any one of these beers as I’m sure they’re fantastic, I would never wait in a four hour line for them. I’d much rather go down to the local store and pick up one of the Sierra Nevada seasonals as I think those are great beers at a good price point.

  14. Well stated Mr. Dawson! This is an interesting conversation and something that has been pondered for a long time in a multitude of arenas. The same question is asked in the wine industry as well. I lived in the Napa Valley for many years. Wine tourists always sought out the small, off the beaten path producers. It adds that feeling of being “in the know” when introducing a small boutique winery to friends and co-workers. Its also the same idea we see in music. How many times have you heard someone pining about the days when they saw some now uber famous band playing small clubs. I think that with the smaller scale of a thing comes a feeling of ownership. In the case of beer, its your personal brewery. Like a brewery started up by an old classmate or friend. Though you don’t have a stake in it, you get to brag about it, and share in the sense of pride in it and knowledge about it.
    With that said, it doesn’t necessarily make the beer any better than the big guys. Just gives the consumer a story to tell that less people have heard before.

  15. Well put Dawson. I tend to root for the smaller breweries, especially the ones I have gotten to know the brewers/owners.
    An example I like to give is of Wits End in Denver. They were brewing out of a roll up garage unit in an undesirable neighborhood in Denver on a one barrel system. I believe they have upgraded or will upgrade the system to a 7 barrel soon. The owner has talked about the overwhelming response they have received, and how he was conflicted to stay the small system with its limitations or get larger and experience the trials that come along with that. Ultimately he said it came down to needing to get larger to provide the beer support for the patrons that have supported them. He freely admits that they need to make a profit, but wanted to stay true to the original desire to brew the beer he wanted to drink. I like that ethos, and it all might be bullshit, but I tend to side with that noble desire. It doesn’t hurt that I like the beer they make. I won’t say best, because to your point we all have different bests.
    In this world we will all get to experience varying levels of excitement over whatever may turn us on. Inevitably we will proclaim this to be the best we’ve ever had, while the guy next to me may not see it the same way. And that’s what makes life great, my own preferences are exactly that….my own. Although it sucks when others find my proclamation the same and now the demand is higher than the producer can support, and now I’m on a quest to find the next “available” best.

  16. I was fortunate enough to try a Hill Farmstead Beer. It was Anna, the “biere de miel”/honey saison. It was brought to me by a friend of mine who had lived in Vermont for sometime. Not only did he live in Vermont, he lived in the thick of the craft beer scene that’s going on in this once lonely mountains.

    Considering his experience in living in this area and seeing the droves of people that came out to buy cases of Heady Topper and fill the tap houses of Hill Farmstead, he commented on the “beer hunter” aspect of these breweries. Stating, similar to MD, that there is a cult following and to build upon that, the folks who are not part of it seem to want to get in on it as well as hold the cans of Heady Topper like a trophy.

    I was also able to try Heady Topper alongside Anna. It was a really tasty Double IPA and its crazy how much hops were forced into a beer that hovers around 8% (utilization only decreases as you get a more concentrated wort). Although it was this tasty, I had to think to myself…there’s a multitude of great IPAs out there. It’s to a point where the mind blowing experience that seems to be associated with drinking the much sought after Heady Topper, is somewhat lost.

    I guess I’m kind of circling the wagons with this post, but what I’m really trying to get at is just what MD was getting at. Perception of taste and the hype associated with a beer really can change its flavor, as well as the approach folks have toward a brewery and its beer. One thing I can say about Heady Topper and Anna though, is that they do provide the beer geek with a much sought after trait: text heavy packaging that transports us into the mindset of brewer and the culture of craft beer alike.

  17. A little behind the eight ball in reading/responding to this. Whatever.

    How I see it, the concepts of best and favorite get confused a lot of the time. And in my opinion a majority of people sharing a favorite of something doesn’t conclusively determine that that thing is the best.

    I’m happy for Hill Farmstead Brewery and the various other well known and small breweries, but in my opinion some of the best small breweries in the world are just down the road from me. The best Belgian Dubbel I’ve ever tasted is served at Bastone in Royal Oak, MI. Oh wait, did I say best? I meant, my favorite Dubbel. Their saison and black saison are also quite good.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, MD.

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