Monthly Beer Mailbag: Pointing the (Middle) Finger at Craft Beer Hypocrites

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – No, we didn't get any pumpkin peach ale in the mailbag this month.

It's not that we're opposed to getting Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) samples. In fact, we've reviewed them here before. It's just that A-B didn't send us any of its peachy Goose Island (check out the key ingredient at 0:09) varieties or newly acquired Elysian Brewing's Gourdgia On My Mind.

That didn't prevent us from having a good time working through some of this month's entries anyway. Boy, there were a lot of them.

When craft suddenly isn't

The sale of longtime Seattle brewer Elysian to A-B this month — coupled with the sale of Bend, Ore., brewer 10 Barrel to the same company in November — has craft beer drinkers and the brewers themselves feeling a bit conflicted. In the case of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Founders, which sold a 35% stake to Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel in December, it has fans wondering what the future holds and whether they're a “craft brewer” anymore.

Ken and Rob Widmer can relate. Back in 2007, they and their Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers brewery teamed up with Redhook to form what is now known as the Craft Brew Alliance (BREW) . In doing so, they sold a 32.2% stake of themselves to a pre-InBev A-B for help with marketing and distribution. The craft beer world flipped out and, that year, the Brewers Association craft beer industry group booted the Widmers from its voting membership, saying they were no longer “craft” because they weren't “independent.” Granted BA's threshold for “independence” is a 25% stake — such as the one Starr Brewing in Virginia sold to A-B that same year before ending it in 2011, or that Terrapin Beer in Athens, Ga. sold to MillerCoors in 2011 — but rules, as they say, are rules.

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The brothers told the BA exactly where they could stick their arbitrary and oft-changed rules and, to celebrate their brewery's 30th anniversary, released a beer last month commemorating their expulsion from the BA. Rejection Ale is an unfiltered IPA laden with cinnamon, mango, 15 pounds of jalapenos and a whole lot of Mosaic, Centennial, Chinook and Cascade hops. Oh, and maybe more than a little brewing metaphor. With its bitterness, sweet burn and label not only blasting the decision, but featuring a pair of joined hands with middle fingers extended, it's a strong statement from a pioneering brewery shunned over a 7.2 percentage-point discrepancy. Is that percentage enough to imply that maybe A-B is pulling some strings behind the scenes? We honestly don't know, but at a time when recently sold brewers are leaving no doubt by giving 100% of themselves away, suddenly 67.8% independence doesn't look so bad by comparison.

Session IPA is still taking over

As we mentioned last month, the Brewers Association craft beer industry group says retail sales of India Pale Ale increased 47% by volume last year. The bitter, hoppy style accounted for 21% of all craft beer sold in 2014 and was the category that most of the nation's more than 3,000 brewers wanted to enter during the Great American Beer Festival last year.

Session IPA, with its 4% alcohol by volume or less (though some brewers place session in the 5% range), is now all over the place. This month alone, we got session IPA in the form of Boston Beer's  (SAM) 4.5% ABV Rebel Rider Session IPA, New Belgium's 4.5% ABV Slow Ride Session IPA and Full Sail's 5.1% ABV Session IPA. We took all three out for a spin during the Super Bowl and found that Full Sail's Session, the only one actually brewed on the West Coast, tasted least like a West Coast IPA. Well balanced with some smooth malt backbone, Full Sail's Session IPA maintains the mild body and character of the Hood River, Ore., brewer's Session series of beers while adding just a bit of hop kick.

Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium, meanwhile, went surprisingly mild with its blend of Nelson Sauvin, Mosaic and six other hops. For a brewery that spares no effort going for a bitter, piney IPA in its Ranger, Rampart and Hop Series IPA, Slow Ride was a welcome shift into a flavorful, yet easy drinking take on the style. Surprisingly, the most bitter of the Session IPAs came from the brewer farthest from the source. Samuel Adams put some citrusy Topaz, Citra and Simcoe hops into the mix, but its use of Cascade and Centennial hops in the dry hopping process toward the end of the brew infused Rebel Rider with a flavor and aroma similar to a piney, aromatic West Coast pale ale.

IPA purists may not want to hear it, but Samuel Adams may just be getting the hang of this.

Samuel Adams: Brewer, patriot, IPA guy

Along with Rebel Rider, Samuel Adams also sent along its 6.5% ABV Rebel IPA and its 8.4% ABV Rebel Rouser Double IPA. We can't emphasize enough just how much beer geeks and West Coast IPA folks frowned on Rebel when it arrived last year, but Lagunitas Brewing founder Tony Magee may have been on to something when he accused Boston Beer founder Jim Koch of going after his IPA taps and shelf space.

In its first year on shelves, Samuel Adams Rebel IPA managed $35.6 million in sales across the U.S., according to market research firm IRI. That made it the third best-selling IPA in the country in 2014 behind only Lagunitas IPA ($45.5 million) and Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA ($49.9 million). New Belgium's Ranger, meanwhile, came in just behind it with $29.9 million in sales, despite debuting more than six years earlier than Rebel.

Yes, Samuel Adams has nationwide distribution and two of the three best-selling craft beers in the country in its Boston Lager and slate of seasonals. But if its IPA were merely passable or just a balanced, more East Coast version of the style, there's no way it even comes within sniffing distance of its California cousins from Sierra and Lagunitas. Much as Vermont brewer Alchemist and its Heady Topper imperial IPA now vie with West Coast powerhouses including Russian River's Pliny The Elder and Ballast Point's Sculpin for best in the land, Boston Beer and Sam Adams rightfully feel they can contend for the large-scale IPA crown.

'Tis the season

Spring seasonal beers are often a strange lot. Caught between the darker, heavier offerings of winter and the light, wheaty release of summer beers, spring doesn't even get reliable seasonal staples such as fall's pumpkin beers or Oktoberfest marzens or tide it over.

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Sure, there's Maibock, but Rogue serves it year-round as Dead Guy Ale. There's Kellerbier or Zwickelbier, but unless you're a dedicated beer geek willing to go to Germany for samples or willing to attend your local brewers' open houses, chances are pretty good it isn't the first beer that comes to mind around this time of year.

Hence the spring seasonal offerings are absolute chaos. Samuel Adams sent us two bottles and a can of its Cold Snap, a lemony 5.3% ABV witbier that seems better suited to the warmer out-like-a-lamb days of late winter than the snow-covered January and February months depicted on its label. Don't get us wrong: It's a tasty, refreshing beer. It just seems an odd fit for its name and season.

Across the country at Widmer Brothers, meanwhile, the stiffer, 6.7% ABV Hopside Down lager was revived from the brewery's now defunct Rotator IPA series to serve as its spring seasonal. Bittered with Cascade hops, it has the crisp finish of a lager and doesn't leave a well-hopped IPA's tongue-scraping bitterness behind. Again, however, we'll note that little about this beer seems especially specific to spring. In fact, Pyramid Breweries just north in Seattle produces its IPL year-round.

Finally, Full Sail just caps the confusion by offering its Session Export spring seasonal that, at 5.8% ABV, is taking some liberties with the term “session.” The Dortmunder style it's modeled after is a somewhat lighter, spicier lager, and this comes across as a more bitter version of Full Sail's standard Session Lager. As a means of transitioning drinkers into hoppier summer beers, it's well suited to the task. Why it's relegated to spring, however, we're still not sure. This strikes us as a great year-round drinker, if a somewhat potent “session” beer.

Full Sail's Bock seasonal from its Pub Series, however, seems like the most spot-on seasonal of the bunch. This dark, malty double bock is just packed with caramel, chocolate and coffee notes, but finishes with a lovely lager smooth. It's a great seasonal, all right, but that season is pretty clearly winter. At 7% ABV and 34 international bitterness units, this bears a distinct resemblance to a beer Full Sail released in the fall and early winter of 2012 called LTD 06. It was a magnificent beer that was, rightly, available from October through December. It's no less wonderful in its current incarnation, but it's far better suited to the winter snows of Mount Hood than to a spring hike.

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet

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