06 Oct What Percentage of Craft Beer is Craft Conversation?
Craft beer isn’t megabeer. Bud Light and Michelob fans know exactly which shelf to look for in the grocery store, they order a “beer” at the bar, and they want it as cold as possible to hide the taste. For craft beer fans, it’s a more subtle and longer process to get a beer. And talking is definitely a big part of it.
A short trip out east this past weekend made that abundantly clear to Walter and I. Ten breweries in two and a half days showed us the best of craft community and the worst. In terms of the best, it’s about building a relationship and finding common ground, whether that common ground is beer or something else. In terms of the worst, it’s about pushing people through in order to maximize profits or about Covid-19 and a loss of personal interaction.
First the good news, there are people out there who still insist on talking to you about your beer. They don’t force you into talking, but they let you know they are there and are willing to talk to you at your level. Interestingly enough, our first stop on Friday was a great example of this. Brew Keepers of Wheeling, WV isn’t a big brewery; it isn’t a flashy brewery. What Kevin and Josh do is make great beer and share in peoples’ enthusiasm for beer.
Brew Keepers is a to-style brewery with no fewer than 13 core beers and only a couple of seasonals. We didn’t find a miss amongst them, and I think it’s related to their attitude about building a relationship with their patrons. Kevin talked to us for over an hour while he served other people and did brewery chores.
Kevin’s tattoo celebrating Reinheitsgebot was a good clue to their brewing philosophy, but we talked about more than their great beer. It was a fine afternoon, and memorable enough to write about here. Conversation is a big part of beer – between drinkers, between drinkers and servers, and between drinkers and brewers. Never sell it short.
Unfortunately, our next stop (around 1pm on Saturday) gave us the opposite experience. First – let me emphasize that being big and busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I know lots of breweries with crowds that manage to still be inviting. But Vanish Farmwoods Brewery just north of Leesburg, VA has lost their way in Walter’s and my opinions.
There must have been a hundred tables strewn throughout the meadow, and a few indoors too. But with the restrooms out of order, five portalets wasn’t going to do the trick. This may seem a small thing, but it’s part and parcel of how a brewery thinks about their patrons. For Vanish, it was apparent that fast lines and maximum sales were the focus. There were several boutique stores as trailer pop-ups (I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing they paid a fee to be there). There were three lines for beer, with very little/no opportunity to discuss options with the brew crew. It was an order, get your beer, and leave attitude.
The problem I have is that I may be in the minority about the importance of talking to your server, because Vanish was packed. It was early afternoon on a Saturday, and I estimate that 1000 people were there – and that doesn’t count the 50 people waiting in line to enter.
Vanish had a lot of beers, but EVERYTHING ran to the mild, middle of the road. It seemed that they build beers around the idea of don’t make things too flavorful and therefore might have people dislike it. And the beer turned out that way – meh. You’d be hard pressed to distinguish the wit beer from the DIPA; only the nitro milk stout was memorable.
I left Walter at Vanish to reunite with a bunch of high school friends while I made the loop around the breweries of Leesburg. Everything I had was more memorable than Vanish. Some of the beers may have been about the same, but the experiences were quite superior. Loudoun Brewing, Barnhouse Brewing, and Black Walnut Brewing were all nice and the people were very friendly. But at Crooked Run Brewing, but the beer and the company shined. As is my problem, I forgot to get the name of the beer slinger, but he was knowledgeable, friendly and helpful.
The beers at Crooked Run Brewing taproom in downtown Leesburg were outstanding. The Sticky Rice was a Berliner with rice milk, mango and coconut – weird, but very good, and they had a grisette on tap! Yes, a grisette, my favorite style of beer. We did a tasting and discussed the beer, the flavor notes, and the misery I have trying to find more grisettes. All in all, a very pleasant visit – and it was because of the conversation (well mostly, the beer was really good).
I picked up Walter and we headed west. Right on the west edge of Loudon County we drove past a brewery that we didn’t know about. I stared at Walter and she stared at me – and then we turned the car around. Bear Chase Brewing looked a lot like Vanish; huge, lots of outdoor tables, lines for beer, etc, but the attitude couldn’t have been more different. They talked to you about beers, they had different beer stations to alleviate the stress (and more than double the number of restrooms), and best of all, they wanted to hear what you had to say.
At their barrelhouse down the hill, they had closed the draft bar for the night, but several of the staff hung out with us to talk beer, football, and whatever. Yes, Walter and I are old, but these young folks engaged us and drove the conversation. We loved it. Fire pits, live music, great views – this place had it all. And yes, they had a large merchandise shack, but it didn’t look like that was they reason they wanted you there, it blended in. Good conversation and beer that told you that they cared about what they are making. They had a chance to be another Vanish, but they avoided the pitfalls.
The last experience of our short trip was another disappointment, but I can’t tell you if it was their fault or Covid-19’s. Combustion Brewing in Columbus, OH has adopted a series of policies that completely eliminate conversation – ALL conversation. You order from an app. You get a text when your beer is ready. You pick it up from a long line of spaces that are identified by table number, you walk toward the pick up space through a single file line, and walk away via a different line. You carry your beer back to your table. There was absolutely no opportunity to talk to anyone inside the establishment – NONE.
One beer and we were gone. It didn’t help that they advertised dine in service for the brewery but had no food; however, I am hesitant to put write off this brewery until we visit them in a non-Covid year. It could be that during a normal period they could be the nicest people around. To Walter and I, sitting at the bar is just about the only way to experience a brewery for the first time, so we were predisposed to having a less than stellar experience at Combustion right now.
The take home messages for our trip – 1) bigger has to work harder to be better, 2) the beer doesn’t have to be great to have a great time, 3) try not to judge people during a plague year, and 4) we now realize how big a portion of craft beer is not the beer, it’s the talk.