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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Craft Beer: The Year Behind and Ahead

We're creeping toward the end of the year, which means everyone is putting out a list of the best beer or beers of the year. I'm not really a fan of lists. But let me look back on the year that was and provide some thoughts on the craft beer year ahead.

When I wrote this column a year ago, I suggested the popularity of cans would continue to grow and we'd see even more canned beer hitting shelves. That was a bit obvious, thinking back. It wasn't very hard to see the tsunami of cans forming; it had been doing so for several years.

What's most interesting about the emergence of cans in craft beer is how it happened. It wasn't a top-down movement. Established craft brewers, for the most part, were slow to embrace cans. To a significant extent, they were forced to adopt cans to compete with the smaller breweries who launched and articulated the movement. Some established places have even attempted to make their cans look like they came from a small, local brewery.

Anyway, you see more canned craft beer on store shelves than you did a few years ago. A lot more. There are many Oregon breweries that had no beers in cans until this year. Now they're pushing out a growling number of brands in cans.

I've mentioned the benefits of aluminum cans before. They're less prone to breakage, less costly to ship, protect beer from light, are easier to carry on outings than glass and easy to recycle. But that's not why they're gaining traction. They're being adopted far and wide because cans possess a cool factor that bottles don't.

I'm sure we'll continue to see more canned craft beer in 2019. Smaller and mid-sized breweries will transition most of their beers to cans, whether 12 or 16 ounce. Larger breweries will continue to package in 12 oz bottles, while also transitioning their mainstream stuff to cans. Increasingly, bottles are yesterday's news.

Local Beer and the Big Squeeze
Around this time last year, we had 6,000 or so breweries, mostly smaller and independent, operating in the United States. That was a shocking number, given where we were only 10 years earlier. Within the last couple of months, we passed through 7,000, with a huge number in planning.

As I said a year ago, the explosion in smaller breweries has been a terrific boon for consumers, who now have easy access to local beer. But it has also been a disaster for larger craft breweries, caught between the retail and distribution power of the Anheuser-Busch High End and the artisan creativity of small local breweries and losing market share in dramatic fashion.

The brewery count will almost certainly continue to rise. Why? Because there are still plenty of fools determined to open a brewery regardless of market conditions. Closures ramped up in 2018 (see Ezra's article on local closures here) and that will certainly be a common theme in 2019. There's nowhere to hide in a saturated market.

The reality is simple: production of craft beer has grown faster than the size of the consumer market. That wasn't all that hard to predict a few years ago. Even when craft beer was growing double digits, many knew it wasn't sustainable, that we'd hit the wall at some point. That's essentially what's happened.

For several years, I've tried to imagine what kind of fallout we'd see in a saturated market. Part of the answer is that poorly operated or otherwise compromised places are forced out. We're seeing that now. What about prices? Craft beer prices have risen slowly in recent years. Could we see a price war in which brewers cut prices to capture sales in a flat market? Hmmm.

This is an area in which independent breweries are vulnerable. Anheuser-Busch, which has already created significant turmoil with its High End, could use steep discounting to destabilize things further. They can manufacture those brands cheaply and have a strong enough presence in the retail channel to deal independent brewers a serious blow. Could it happen? We shall see.

Best and Worst
I'm seeing a lot of Beer of the Year lists. To me, there's no such thing. I tasted or drank a number of great beers in 2018. It's hard to pick a favorite or favorites because my taste varies from week to week and month to month. I tend to like lighter beers during the warm days of summer and darker, bigger beers when the weather turns cooler. But I can't identify a favorite.

On that subject, generally, I had hoped the haze craze would moderate or die in 2018. It's not that I hate the style...I'm just tired of the frenzy surrounding it and the $8 cans with ridiculous names and artwork. Of course, the haze lives on. But I sense the frenzy around it has slowed down a bit. I suppose that question will come into clearer focus as we move through the new year.

Brut IPA, some thought, would be a replacement for the hazy. Beer geeks were ready for something new, that's for sure. But the Brut movement bogged down when a lot of the beers turned out to be nothing more than hop-flavored LaCroix. I actually tasted a couple of Brut IPAs I liked. Most, however, were middling or bad. Some fine tuning is needed, I guess.

The event madness that started many years ago showed no signs of slowing down in 2018. In fact, the event circuit seems to have captivated an increasing number of wannabes and nerds who chase special releases, collabos, etc. Their dedication is cult-like. Yeah, I understand why breweries, pubs and taprooms do events. But the cult-like fascination is mystifying.

Somehow related to the trendy and frenetic aspects of the industry is the new approach to craft beer promotion on social media. Selling with sex or the suggestion of sex has been around for centuries. Now it's part of craft beer thanks to (for example) Instagram feeds that feature beer-themed soft porn. I'm not sure where this is headed, but I'm pretty sure it's not a good thing.

There's more I could talk about, but that's enough. It's a decent bet that 2019 will be just as interesting and crazy as 2018. Craft beer and the beer industry in general are an ongoing adventure.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Researching the Obvious by Vertical

When you're thinking about cellaring beer for a later vertical tasting, the best choice probably isn't or shouldn't be a hoppy winter ale that's designed to be consumed fresh. But the world isn't a perfect place. Plus, some people are nerds.

Regardless of all that, you don't turn down a chance to partake in a vertical tasting of Sierra Nevada Celebration going back 30 years. Nope. The oldest bottle was from 1989, the year I packed up and moved to the Portland area. Some of my millennial beer friends were babies or not yet born. Yup.

We started off the tasting with the 2018 vintage. Starting fresh and working your way back through the years allows you to get a snootful of what the beer should taste like and how it declines down through time. In theory.

The problem with that approach is there are differences in packaging (several years of twist-on caps) and unknown variations in how the different years were stored and handled. As well, I'm guessing there were slight differences in Celebration over the years, for any number of reasons.

For the unaware, Celebration was first brewed in 1981. It arrived on the scene long before Americans imagined the concept of India Pale Ale and offered an example of what the style could be, might be. Celebration has always been seriously hop forward and focused on citrus and pine notes and tropical flavors. Its hop-centric character was/is offset by a thicker and darker backbone, a feature that has been almost completely abandoned by modern IPAs.

I first tasted Celebration a generation ago, as far as I can recall. This would have been in the days when Full Sail Amber was considered fairly bitter. At the time, Widmer Hefeweizen was also considerably more bitter than it is today, a factoid revealed to me in a private tasting with Ben Dobler during Widmer's 30th anniversary year. I don't remember being particularly fond of Celebration on that first taste, though the concept did eventually grow on me.

In fact, Celebration became a sort of role model for what aggressive winter beers would become. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, they say, and Celebration set the standard for the craft breweries that followed Sierra Nevada. As IPAs took hold, those wanting to come up with a hoppy winter ale effectively reversed engineered Celebration.

Full Sail's Wreck the Halls is a good example of the style here in Oregon. Beers like Deschutes Jubelale and Full Sail's Wassail, among others, were nice winter ales. But they were malt-driven. Wreck the Halls, designed by then-Full Sail brewer John Harris, was aggressively hopped, a bold winter IPA and a direct descendant of Celebration. Countless others have followed to the point that most contemporary winter ales are excessively hopped.

As we started to churn through the vintages, the dropoff in hop aroma and flavor was not terrible for beers packaged within the last 8-9 years. There were some obvious ups and downs in those beers, perhaps revealing damage related to how they were stored or handled. Still, this group held up fairly well. Many tasters picked the 2018 as their favorite, but opinions were mixed.

Going back another decade, to beers packaged between 2000 and 2010, there was a steep dropoff in hop presence. No surprise. These beers, for the most part, had not disintegrated entirely, but were on the downhill slide. In most cases, it was like drinking an aged amber ale with mild hop essence. There were a few exceptions, beers that held up better than the group as a whole.

The final decade, beers from 1989-1999, revealed with brutal honesty what happens to these beers with age. Although a couple of them held up better than expected, most were lifeless. They presented as thin malt tea or, worse, soy sauce. Hop presence had faded almost completely in this set.

I should mention that there were a few gaps in the collection. Beers from 24 vintages were tasted, along with a shorter vertical of Bigfoot, which held up considerably better than Celebration. A fine time was had by everyone who attended, and it was instructive. Thanks to Nicole Kasten and Mike Perkins for generously hosting, and to everyone who provided beer.

What empirical lesson was learned? Only that cellaring hoppy beers for an eventual vertical tasting has some serious pitfalls and that these beers are best when fresh. So nothing we didn't already know. But proving the point once again was great fun.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Uncertain Fate of the Craft Brew Alliance

I last discussed the Craft Brew Alliance roughly a year ago, just after they shut down the Gasthaus pub and turned it into a taproom for their small batch beers. That move was designed, at least partially, to make the CBA a juicier buyout target for Anheuser-Busch. But nothing has happened. What gives?

To understand why many assumed a buyout was imminent, you have to go back to the contract AB and the CBA signed in August 2016. That was a different time in craft beer, predating the market saturation and instability we see now. The document, which was a renewal and expansion of a prior contract, heavily favored the CBA and effectively established a framework for a slow moving buyout.

Giveaways in the contract involved domestic distribution costs, contract brewing opportunities, international distribution rights and more. They are covered thoroughly in the piece I wrote back in 2016. Rather than repeat those details, you can find them here if you're so inclined.

The reason many assumed a buyout was coming is the contract set escalating "qualifying offer" prices. By August 2017, a qualifying offer to buy the CBA had to be at least $22 per share. By August 2018, the number rose to $23.25 per share. By August 2019, a qualifying offer is set at $24.50 per share. There was incentive for AB to act sooner than later.

The allure of easy money attracted speculators. Soon after the new contract was announced in 2016, the CBA's stock price, which had been hovering around $14 per share, jumped to above $20. It hasn't yet worked out for the speculators that jumped aboard. The stock price has bounced around a bit, but shown life in July and August in each of the last two years, as speculators positioned themselves to cash in. It closed at $15.80 on Friday.

Given the structure of the contract, it's fair to wonder why the expected buyout hasn't happened. We all understand it's a different craft beer climate these days. Some of the big shots at AB have said they're comfortable with the High End portfolio as it is. They say they're focused on paying down debt acquired in the SABMiller merger/acquisition. Right.

The reality, though, is that Anheuser-Busch could not have gone through with a buyout in the wake of the SABMiller deal. It had to wait for the Department of Justice to complete its review. The "consent decree" was only recently issued, which means it's open season again, subject to certain limitations. One condition is that AB must give 30 days notice of any acquisition.

Opinions on whether a deal will happen on the 2019 timeline are mixed. Some believe the market is too unstable and that AB will stay focused on the craft assets it has and delay future acquisitions until the dust settles. That's not necessarily a bad argument.

However, there are sound reasons to believe a buyout may happen. Foremost is Kona, which continues strong growth despite the funk descending on the industry as a whole. Kona drove 64 percent of the CBA's total shipments during the first nine months of 2018 and its international potential is virtually untapped.

On the flip side, the CBA's legacy brands, Widmer and Redhook, are in decline and have no value to AB. They wouldn't be a stumbling block given the appeal of Kona, but they would likely be spun off in a buyout. It's ironic, for sure, given the history, but that's the way it is.

Should Anheuser-Busch fail to make a qualifying offer by August 2019, the contract stipulates that it pay the CBA a $20 million "international volume development incentive" fee. Those fees were $3 million in 2016 and $5 million in 2017. The $20 million balloon payment was put in the contract to leverage the imperative of a buyout.

It's entirely possible that AB moves forward in coming months. Since it already owns 31.4 percent of the CBA, it would spend only about $330 million (at $24.50 per share) to gain full ownership. That isn't a huge financial hit in a company so focused on reducing debt that it recently cut dividends to the tune of $4 billion a year. The spin for shareholders would be that the acquisition saves and makes the company money.

The fly in the ointment is the state of the industry. There are a lot of nervous folks out there. Some fear we are looking at a repeat of what happened in the late 1990s, which in our present context would mean dozens, if not hundreds, of brewery closures, and a depressed market for several years, at least. It's a serious and realistic concern.

On the other hand, there's Kona, seemingly impervious to market conditions. Even in a shrinking beer market and with overall craft sales flat or barely growing, Kona continues to surge. It's been dragging the CBA forward for several years and has the kind of brand appeal that a lot of companies covet. Kona may be one of the few gems left and AB already owns a piece. Why not own it all?

With all that in mind, I rate the chances of a buyout before the end of August 2019 at less than 50 percent. The incentives for AB to own Kona outright are significant. One thing that would certainly scuttle a deal is a sudden slowdown in Kona's growth trajectory, a scenario that would also cripple the CBA.

Anheuser-Busch may very well let the buyout timeline expire in 2019. When the contract was renewed in 2016, the parties didn't anticipate the slowdown we're seeing. They foresaw continued rapid growth in the craft segment. The qualifying offer minimums were set to protect both parties, but it turns out the numbers were set too high and are now an obstacle.

Should the August 2019 deadline pass without a deal, the CBA will receive the $20 million international development payment. It will also continue to benefit from all other aspects of the contract, including distribution, contract brewing, etc. The CBA would, of course, be open to offers from other suitors, though it's difficult to imagine who might be in the market.

The CBA's stock price will likely level off at around $14-$16 in that scenario, only slightly higher than it was before the contract renewal and buyout provisions artificially boosted it. If Kona falters, the stock price could take a significant hit, possibly into single digits.

It seems entirely plausible that AB plays a waiting game that extends beyond the 2019 deadline. Unless they want to be really generous with their CBA friends, they'll watch what happens with Kona and the overall market. If Kona continues to look strong, they'll likely proceed with a buyout for something less than the current $24.50/share price.

Crapshoot on.