Would you spend $1,300 for a beer? Within the past year, several people did exactly that on eBay: the first was a bottle of Midnight Sun from California’s Lost Abbey Brewing Co., and the other was a rare magnum of sour beer from famed Belgium brewer Armand Debelder.
Among collectors, craft beer is obviously the new wine. The demand for the most sought-after craft brews now resembles the hysteria once reserved for cult Cabernets such as Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle. Many of these beers are produced in small batches and sold only at the brewery, where they sometimes sell out in a few hours. The most exotic of them never get into general circulation—not officially, although a vibrant black market has evolved and driven prices skyward.
“For a long time, craft beer was an exclusive club,” says Mitch Steele (left), brewmaster at Stone Brewing Co., which has been referred to as the all-time top brewery on Earth by Beer Advocate magazine. “Recently, people’s tastes have changed, and more consumers are willing to experiment. The category is exploding.”
Pairing Beer & Bites
Master Cicerone Nicole Erny gives us some basic rules on pairing craft beer with food.
The explosion has gone beyond the community of collectors and into mainstream America. Craft beer now accounts for 10.2 percent of domestic beer sales, with an annual volume of nearly $4 billion, according to the research firm IbisWorld.
At the same time, demand for traditional, mass-produced beer has plummeted. According to Beer Marketer’s Insights, an industry trade publication, sales of Budweiser declined 28 percent between 2007 and 2012. Even worse: Old Milwaukee dropped 54 percent during the same period, and Michelob Light was down a staggering 70 percent
Price does not seem to be a factor. A six-pack of Budweiser sells for between $6 and $8 in most parts of the country, while the same quantity of the Stone Brewing Co.’s IPA (India Pale Ale – right) fetches from $14 to $18. Increasingly, proprietors of upscale liquor stores are finding that the consumer spending money on craft beer is likely to be the same person who buys expensive wine.
“Craft beer is an affordable luxury,” says Tyler Jones, head brewer at Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire, the nation’s first brewpub. “You can spend 10 bucks for a delicious six-pack, versus $50 or $60 for a good bottle of wine. They tend to appeal to the same people. The average wine drinker already has the sophisticated palate that the new craft beer drinker needs.”
Continue to page two for insight on the Cicerone Certifcation Program.
The Cicerone Certification Program is in the front line of that effort. Simply put, a cicerone is the beer world’s equivalent of a sommelier. Ray Daniels, an expert who has written more than two-dozen books on beer and brewing, founded the program in 2008 and it has grown quickly. It focuses on education, with the goal of keeping beer fresh through proper storage, handling and service. Like the Court of Master Sommeliers, there are different levels of achievement. The entry-level certification is the Certified Beer Server, a credential held by more than 28,000 people around the country. There are fewer than 1,000 individuals who have qualified as a cicerone, and a mere seven Master Cicerones in the country. To pass the master’s exam, a candidate must possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of beer and beer styles, and survive several grueling days of written and oral testing and tasting sessions.
“A lot of people think beer is like vodka,” says Nicole Erny (below left), one of the few Master Cicerones. “They believe it will last on the shelf indefinitely, but that’s absolutely not true. Most beers have three to six months of shelf life, and shelf life affects taste.”
Craft Beer 101: Style Guide
Need a crash course in craft beer? Here, we offer-up a quick guide to help decipher the styles of those frothy brews.
Erny has been intrigued with craft beer since her college days. Although she grew up in Northern California and was “fascinated with flavor,” she never got involved with wine, because she felt “there was too much pretension to wade through before you got to the good stuff,” a sentiment echoed by a number of brewers and craft-beer aficionados. She works full-time as an educator for the Cicerone Certification Program, and is particularly concerned with service standards, such as cleanliness of glassware.
“When it comes to glasses,” she says, “there’s clean, and then there’s beer clean. Just a very small amount of chemical or detergent residue is going to impact the way the beer tastes. It can also make the beer go flat very quickly.”
Despite the growth of the program, don’t expect cicerones to replace sommeliers anytime soon in the world of fine dining. Beer generally doesn’t cost as much as wine, and there simply isn’t enough profit in it to justify a full-time staff member. Walk into an upscale bar or lounge, however, and you’re likely to find a cicerone. Apart from that, the greatest impact of the program has probably been to improve storage and transport conditions within the distribution chain.
The current popularity of craft beer has created several challenges for small brewers. The first is competition within the category: More than 400 craft breweries opened during 2012, but 43 also closed. The other challenge is external. The success of craft brews hasn’t gone unnoticed by the large commercial breweries, and many have started their own labels to regain a slice of the pie. Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer is made by Miller Coors, while Shock Top is produced by Anheuser-Busch; both have the appearance of craft beer, and insiders refer to them as “crafty” brews. The official price for a six-pack of Blue Moon is $11, but it’s not hard to find it for $8, and more than two million barrels were sold last year. Ultimately, craft beer—like boutique wine—may turn out to be in the eye (or on the taste buds) of the beholder.
Stone Brewing Co.’s brewery.