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Good Beers, Bad Beers, You Know I’ve Had My Share…

I’ve been into craft beer for several years now, and in that time I have been treated to many seasonal releases, industry shifts, and trends that I now know to be cyclical.  I’ve also witnessed breweries getting craftier in that same time frame.  Not only are they getting better at coming up with great, wonderful, and wild flavors using different hops, aging techniques, and adjuncts, but some are getting better at the basics.

I will use as my examples two breweries I am very familiar with from the Northwest, Ninkasi Brewing from Eugene, Oregon and Elysian Brewing from Seattle, Washington.  Both breweries make some really great beers, and both share this little factoid in common, I really didn’t like their beers a few years ago.  Let me explain.

The first time I tried a Ninkasi Beer It was just ok.  Nothing really spectacular in any sense, but not bad either.  As time went on and I tried some more of their brews they began to get better.  I really don’t think this was my palate getting dialed into their beers, I think their beers began to actually improve.  See as time marches onward recipe’s get tweaked, ingredients change, and the brewing process is refined, so beers that were once kind of meh, are now bright and lovely.  Or dark and lovely depending on your choice.

Enter Elysian.  When I first started seeing these beers, I was instantly turned off by their labels, and they still are quite baroque and overstated in my mind, but the beer inside has gone through a metamorphosis.  What were once thin and watery messes are now robust and and very well crafted beers.  Again I’m pretty sure it isn’t me, but the beer changed and got better.  I now look for beers brewed by Elysian to try.

How do I know that it wasn’t me?  Well their reputations preceded them.  When I first asked about Elysian I was given the “meh, their beers are ok, for the price” or “They do a pretty good pumpkin brew.”  Now people say they are a great beer and a great value!  And they truly are, I can get a bomber of just about any of their brews for under $6.

As I’ve seen breweries improve, I’ve also seen them backslide too.  Take for instance Ninkasi.  Their story that I was able to piece together is this,  they burst onto the craft beer scene and were amazing beers.  I heard a lot about them, and I couldn’t wait to try them.  But when I finally did, it was in the middle of a brewery expansion, and quality must have suffered.  As they got their beers dialed back in with the higher production volume, the quality began to improve by leaps.  It seemed that every beer they put out was better than the last, and I “discovered” some favorites like the Oatis, their Oatmeal Stout, and the Total Domination IPA.  However the last Oatis I had was infected, and tasted like banana bread.  Some people like that taste in their beer…I do not, especially when it isn’t supposed to taste like bananas.

I hope I just got a bad batch, and it isn’t the start of something mediocre.  Really though it makes some sense that craft breweries would go through these ups and downs.  They are so small, mostly, and ingredients change from year to year affecting flavor.  And beer can change depending on the master brewer.  Much like a restaurant can change and get better or worse under different head chefs, as new breweries grow and the industry naturally gets larger, people move around and you begin to have “Celebrity” brewers.  These guys and gals are coveted and make some fine beer.

I guess this inconsistency is something that I have grown to love in craft beer.  Changes in flavor, subtle and extreme from year to year, keep things interesting. How about you? Do you have breweries that you once thought were just sort of there, but now are rockstars?  And on the other end of the spectrum, are there breweries you used to be very excited about that you can now take or leave?  Let us know in the comments.

-Don

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27 Comments on “Good Beers, Bad Beers, You Know I’ve Had My Share…”

  1. John King
    July 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I used to be excited about reading new blog posts on here, but not as much anymore.

    • Don
      July 10, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      Well that is better than me, I never was excited to read blog posts here, especially Jims.

    • July 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Wait a minute, John. Don’s talking quality here, not quantity (where we are sucking wind recently). Unless you think we suck at BOTH quantity and quality, to which I say…uhhh…It’s all Don’s fault!!

  2. July 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Both Sun King and Upland in Indiana were “meh” for me from the start. Outside of Uplands’s sour line, which is amazing. But as time went on, I really started to notice an uptick in Upland’s portfolio and Sun King started to turn out some amazing beers, though their first foray into sour’s was undrinkable…over time, they got better and I miss them, no longer being an IN native.

    When I lived in VT the first time, about 7 years ago, Magic Hat was fantastic, then they went through a rapid growth and expansion, purchased Pyramid, pushed #9 to over 70% of their sales by volume and I really started to notice a down turn in their beers. Gone was some of the great one offs, Chaotic Chemistry for example, Spring Haze change, Single Chair did too. And then when NAB bought them out, they lost me. I will occasionally like an Elder Betty. However, their original brewer left and now runs his own brewery, Fiddlehead, and their beers are fantastic. He just made a Sap Beer that was incredible.

    All works out in the end I suppose.

    • Don
      July 10, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      Way to play along Kenny, excellent examples. I wish I could discuss those with you, but alas that is one of the wonderful and irritating things about craft beers, you can’t get them everywhere!

    • johnking82
      July 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      I agree with your Sun King…I had a few of there beers and weren’t impressed. Then this summer I went to a tasting and was blown away.

  3. July 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    My hat is off to any brewery that is able to produce a consistently good beer. If I ever go pro I should name my brewery “Lightning in a Bottle” cuz I would never hit the same mark twice. My “meh” came recently when I tasted Hop Stoopid by Lagunitas; for some odd reason I noticed the malt more than the hops. I doubt that they had changed it much, by my situation had changed. Last year I spent an extended period on the east coast and drank East Coast style IPAs. When I tasted Hop Stoopid it was like being home in California. As they say in beer drinking: “Location, location, location.” Much depends on where you are at a moment in time.

    BTW, welcome back Don. We’ve missed you.

    • July 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      Darn typos. “By” should be “But.”

    • July 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

      Agree on your BTW – I missed him, too.

    • Don
      July 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      Interesting perspective from a home brewer, Norm. There are so many variables to control, unless you get real scientific about it there are bound to be variations in flavor, and even when you are real scientific it can happen too due to a myriad of factors. What I like is when the real artful brewers can take the lemons and make lemonade.

      • July 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

        I read yesterday on Beer Pulse that at “St. Louis’ Perennial Artisan Ales, the beer lineup is in constant rotation” because the head brewer is afraid of not getting the hops needed for a recipe. And, along your “making lemonade” comment, one of the DC breweries is calling their latest batch of lager a “California Common” (formerly known as a “Steam Beer”) since their power was out and they couldn’t control their temperatures as they needed to. Cal Commons use lager yeast at ale yeast temps. When nature and PepCo give you outages, make Steam Beer.

  4. July 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    I’m having the same experience w/ Heavy Seas. When I first tasted their brews, I was generally unimpressed w/ most of them. But I’ve changed my mind of late, they’re really starting to get it right. (Oddly enough, I always liked Hugh Sisson’s beers at his restaurant in Baltimore.)

    I’m hoping I’ll eventually be able to say the same about: Flying Dog, a particular disappointment as I really liked many of the Wild Goose brews they’re predecessor made; Brewer’s Alley; and Yards (I do like their Colonial series.) Bottom-line up till now is that w/ the exception of Sissons/Clipper City and Wild Goose, most of the Mid-Atlantic beers I preferred were brewed in DE and PA.

    On the other hand I’ve liked every last VT-brewed beer I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know whether its the water, the weather or just plain beer smarts, those Green Mountain Boys know how to brew some damn good beer!

    • July 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      I agree about VT. I just had my first taste of Heady Topper from The Alchemist, and it’s really tasty stuff. I’m writing about this week for the other gig, and did an interview with John Kimmich, the brewer. You’d like him Wayne – he’s man of skill who doesn’t give a damn about convention or prestige, just making damn fine beer, which is exactly what he’s done.

  5. Johnny
    July 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    I would have to agree with the person who said Magic Hat. They used to be pretty experimental and make some interesting and decent beers, but most of their stuff I have occasionally now really isn’t all that good. I wouldn’t say the beer is BAD, but it’s not the same quality I remember it used to be.

    P.S. Nice Zeppelin reference in the title.

    • Don
      July 10, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Ding ding ding ding! You win Johnny! I was wondering if anyone was going to get the Zeppelin reference. Interestingly enough Magic Hat’s founder and the mad scientist behind those earlier brews now runs an experimental brewery for Sam Adams. Could be why they have gotten more crafty as of late. It’s just another case of when corporate bean counter mindset takes over at a good brewery, all roads lead to mediocrity.

  6. Diss Content
    July 10, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    I will never understand the brewery expansion explanation for lower quality product.

    First, if you have enough demand to expand, then you have enough demand to keep what was the cause of your increased demand funded and unmolested (your proto brewery). Why do American companies subscribe to this destroy to grow approach? Should your demand shrink in the future (ref: latest economic depression) then you can retract operations to match new levels. No need for this scorched Earth approach where a dried lifeless husk is left behind.

    There are two things which all MBAs focus upon as a way to ‘maximize profits’ and that is sourcing the cheapest possible grain bills, and hacking the process times to the very minimums because the end user is too stupid to know the difference, then shove the product out the door via a volume contract which insures mediocrity and therefore a future market glut. The customers weren’t as stupid as you thought (Pete’s Wicked Ale).

    • Don
      July 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      Agreed. I’m not certain that it is that they destroy what they had, but the process of ramping up a recipe is not a linear one. I.e. just because you triple the volume of water in a batch doesn’t mean you automatically triple every ingredient in the recipe. I’ve learned this in cooking. Things can easily become overspiced if you take this linear approach. So it is a bit more trial and error than you might expect. I think that is why quality suffers during an expansion. Plus, you can’t just throw away 10,000 gallons of beer, so you bottle it, grit your teeth, and sell it, and hope all will be forgiven when things get better.

      • July 10, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

        They could probably avoid the linear problem by increasing the number of vats vice increasing their size.

        But the real problem lies with the change in perspective. As soon as one takes the corporate perspective vs. the artisanal perspective the product begins to suffer. The first involves a profit motive while the second involves a quality/service motive. Its an unfortunate fact (though not necessarily an inevitable one) that corp-think leads to inferior products/services. Yes, one needs to make a profit to stay in business but not at the cost of quality.

        • Diss Content
          July 11, 2012 at 11:44 am #

          I think you nailed it massugu, a slightly more sane approach to a ramp up.

          The Micro-brewing cemetery is already filled with examples of getting a corporate spouse, then becoming McDonalds-ized and available in every market with a flavor profile to match. Sometimes sizing something more specialized should follow the Ruth’s Chris model or even a Montgomery Inn or Geno’s Cheesesteak where the prototype is the market. After all, would you even consider having a Dogfish Head Ale with a Big Mac?

          Russian River Brewing was grubstaked with money from a winery before the original investors decided to stick with grapes. Gordon Biersch took the arc of beginning as craft beer that has morphed into a divested restaurant chain and ownership going to a casino mogul. I think the long term paths these two breweries take will be an interesting case study. The fact that the somewhat inconsistent newcomer Ninkasi has managed to place in the top 50 breweries in the US (based on production), indicates just how tiny and volatile (sensitive perhaps?) the craft market remains.

  7. July 11, 2012 at 5:17 am #

    What do you think about Pilsner Urquell?

    • Don
      July 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Its a good gateway beer. Good flavor, and refreshing, and incredibly consistent flavor profile.

    • July 11, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

      Pilsner Urquel is one that had rumors of quality drop, then SABMiller took them over and returned the brewery to its prime (not all corporate take overs are bad). Now they’re express shipping in refrigerated containers to the US so the beer tastes as close to the original as possible. I did a side by side recently. It’s a noticeable quality improvement.

  8. July 11, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Ninkasi still suffers from extreme inconsistency. The joke is you can buy a six pack of Total Domination and its like a variety pack of flaws and infections. No two bottles are the same. You are totally right on Elysian. They used to be hit or miss. But since they’ve put in their new brewhouse, they’ve been solid gold with each new beer being more interesting than the last. I also think the fact that they’ve started working New Belgium the last few years on lots of joint projects has helped their consistency and quality.

    • Don
      July 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

      Interesting, I have had some of the same issues with Ninkasi, but I just tried to convinve myself that I had misremembered it or whatever, but Spring Reign is another case, I’ve had some that were fantastic, and others that were just meh. I just put it off to bad tastebuds or something, but there was no mistaking the Oatis that was so gross.

      • July 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

        Unfortunately, or fortunately for them, consumers don’t seem to care that much. I think people chock it up to being “artisan” instead of rushing the brewing process to meet volume.

  9. July 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    Cascade Lakes is another NW brewery that seems to be on the quality upswing. They used to be pretty bland and inconsistent. They picked up a brewer from Deschutes Brewing and now the quality is growing. Most of the new beers they’re making are really nice. I’ll be curious to see if they can continue the process.

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