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Are Craft Beer Events the New BaconFest?

4 Nov

There have been a flurry of articles lately surrounding the rocket rise of craft beers in the US which have some of us wondering if this is just yet another trend to witness and release a la all things bacon.

Some weekends ago, I received free tickets to a beer tasting here in Chicago. It was at a ballroom / concert venue and they managed to fill about 90% of the huge space with vendor tables. We were given about three hours to make our ways through “for 10 tastings” but no one ever checks those punch cards so we were pretty much at an open bar for three hours. I took my girl Maria with me, who is in my ladies’ craft beer group She’s Crafty. We beelined for a few familiars then wandered into the cider room where we had some truly tremendous offerings (my tasting notes are below). After that, we tried a few others before going upstairs to the local breweries’ tables. Part of the time was spent trying really cool, weird beers, and other parts were spent networking in hopes of finding the next location for one of our She’s Crafty meetings. Because of that, we found ourselves talking to those doing the pouring much more than making sure we hit every table to sample their wears. The best of intentions paving the way to hell and all, the more we talked, the more they gave us and the more we drank so before I knew it, the time was up and we were drunk. I did manage to make some great connections though and added a few spots to the “must do” event locations. That to me, is what tasting events are for: discover new, fun brews and make some connections and friends. Not everyone sees them for that though, sometimes folks just want to get drunk (I dare say, under the guise of a classier-sounding “beer tasting” than “openbarfuckyeah”).

There was a bar here in Chicago seven or eight years ago, and I’ve heard of others doing this since, that offered cheap or free baskets of bacon during “happy hour”*. I got way, way up on my highest horse about that and waved my fist in the air about how bacon isn’t your whore and if you truly love it, you won’t put it on the street corner and hand it out to every single person that has a yen for it. Treat it with respect, don’t give it away. By making it common – hell, even free – its intrinsic value is taken down to the floor. Suddenly we have bacon lip balm and bacon wrapping paper. In short: a trend.

Craft beer has been eeking its way towards that same descriptor for a while now, but in the last two years or so, Chicago at least, has simply exploded with new breweries and shows no signs of stopping. This is great, right? More yummy beers to explore? More people to get really into the scene and create more conversation? In theory, yes. In reality, we see a lot of Lyle Lanleys coming in, bringing their IPAs, ales, and over-the-top flavors with them. Suddenly it’s put on the street corner and next thing you know, craft beer tastings with 150 vendors that include the likes of Blue Moon and the “artisanal” division of MillerCoors lines up next to the guy who brews with his buddy in the basement that managed to get a four-bar distribution deal set up. For the record: Blue Moon and MillerCoors better bring something really cool and interesting to the party in order to compete with that guy. True beer folks can see right through those shenanigans pretty quickly. For instance, did you know that MillerCoors is behind Redd’s Apple Ale? I see that stuff everywhere and I’ll admit, it’s actually pretty tasty, as is their Belgian offering, St. Stefanis. What? You didn’t know those were made by a beer company giant because nowhere on the label does it tell you so? Interesting…

Last week, I received a Facebook invite to join yet another beer event. It has “Chicago” in the title however, it occurs in a suburb 20 miles away with no direct way to get to the venue via public transit. Chicago is a city of  almost three million people, with over a quarter of whom don’t own vehicles. While our public transit system is pretty good (minus the crucial ability to traverse north to south without going all the way to the far east in order to do it), it does not extend to that particular area. In this case, the promoters used the city’s name for allure but haven’t thought much beyond that. In my kinda humble opinion, that is a good metaphor for what happens when something that takes such time, effort, and art, becomes fodder for “foodies”. I suspect a Food Network show about a brewery isn’t too far behind.

I love the opportunity to try new things, particularly when its beers that are hard to find in an area or within a few bars’ radius. I am all for that kind of blitz learning. In fact, tomorrow my sweetheart and I are going to take advantage of a free day and head over to Small Bar. This particular establishment is closing soon, another victim of the kind of gentrification that happens when a formerly neighborhood-cool area succumbs to the oontz oontz douchebag crowd and jeopardizes the vibe so many came to love. They were over it, and rather than fight for a stronghold on a block that is now more interested in Irish car bombs and Jaeger shots, they’re packing up with their dignity in tact. This is great news for the scavengers, in a lot of ways. My man doesn’t know a lot about beer and wants to, and bars like Small Bar are perfect for daytime sit-and-sip sessions. Their bartenders are about turning people on and getting them excited, not just drunk. So we’ll do a little tour, sip some interesting items, and I’ll take some more notes. I hate that we’re losing another one to a street that’s changing for the worse, but I’d rather see them go out on top with a Local Option Morning Wood than a $15 Bud Light pitcher special. With that, I will leave you with some tasting notes and suggestions for your next trip to the local booze house. But before you do that, patronize your local fancy beer bar. They may not be around for long.

BeerHoptacular 2014 tasting notes (less descriptors as beer flowed on, but I had the wherewithal to write it down so it counts):beer notes

Cider:
Seattle Cider – incredibly tasty and dry, maybe my favorite or def. top 3 ever. 16 oz. cans
* Dry Cider, 0 brix
* Pumpkin Spice, 2 brix
DeMunck’s – Southern Tier makes a cider! Super tasty, crisp, dry.
Virtue -Lapinette has serious funk. Gorgeous, soft cheese funk. Brettanomyces! Yiss!

Beer:
Dry Hop – More Stories than JD Got Salinger. 6% ABV, garam masala what!
Spiteful – Abbey single, beer bread caraway. Freedom Fries – nice stout
Begyle – pretty much everything they do rules (female brewer! new brew facility soon!)
Marz – What The Pho porter, 6.5%. They ONLY beer we had twice. Freaking amazing, pho spices! Weird, man!
Blue Moon (yeah, I know) – Horchata wheat. Freaking horchata and beer. Better than I wanted it to be. Test market.
Ale Syndicate – local darlings, everything they do is great and their branding is awesome

And then we ate all the cheese leftover on the Whole Foods table, made friends with some dude pouring the last of his dark beer, grabbed a t-shirt off a bench, ran into some friends and went across the street for another one. Frankly, it ended on a light note considering how often and easy it is to just keep going and going. The afternoon tasting is always going to be way less of a shit show than night, since the night time ones are the ones no one has anything to live for and the brewers are going neck and neck with the jamokes. It’s ridiculous fun if you get the right mix of folks involved.

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The Tricky Business of Beer Label Design

4 Aug

Time Out Chicago’s Amy Cavanaugh recently aimed her sites and fired at Rockford, Illinois. Specifically at Machesney Park, the suburb of Rockford that hosts Pig Minds Brewing, and more specifically than that, at a particular label they have for their PD blueberry ale. The label features the rear view of a mini-skirted lady whose undies have fallen down and are now stretched between her ankles (hence the “PD”: panty dropper, for those whose brains don’t automatically go there). Behold:

PD

I am friends with one of the brewers so I was privy to the fallout on his Facebook wall, most of it full of colorful language and such implications that Ms. Cavanaugh had perhaps not known the romantic touch of a man in a long time or maybe needs a vacation. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of calling her a “bitch” and implying that she is just an internet troll with no cred nor writing skill. Neither of those is true, she writes some of the most honest, carefully considerate (and sometimes harsh) restaurant reviews Time Out has, and I personally think it’s very unfortunate that the people who commented on my friend’s post resorted to that base of a reaction (something that Ms. Cavanaugh herself accuses Pig Minds of doing via their label, base denominator appeal). Nobody’s winning here, you guys.

Someone pointed out in his comment thread that Lagunitas (who recently opened a brew facility in Chicago with a female head brewer) features a lady on the label of their Little Sumpin’ ale. True, they do indeed. But um, it’s not quite in the same vein. To wit: littlesumpintaplogo

So after reading that exchange, I posted to my group’s Facebook page and posed the “does it matter?” question to the people.  Not much response yet, I’m hoping for more because this is an important conversation. The hard part of the conversation though, the thing that seems to stop it in its tracks, is that we’re talking about beer. We’re trying to speak seriously about something that most people don’t consider to be very serious (unless you’re the owner, brewer, investor, bartender, assistant, or promoter). It’s a product that folks beeline to in order to escape the heavy things in life, right? Unless we’re talking about a wee heavy, ha ha. Well, yes, ok. But it’s also a boys club and has been since it all began, which is hard to fight. Women have a hard time breaking in and staying in let alone with opinions that go against the industry and tradition. I’ve worked at breweries, I see what happens to the one female who may well brew beers herself, who may sling bags of malt over her shoulders and shovel out the spent grains right along side of the guys and who invests just as much heart in the process, but at the end of it, she’s still a girl. She still has to listen to the macho dick swinging that goes on whenever craft meets art meets nerd. She may even have a dick to swing of her own (you know what I mean) but in a lot of ways, she is just a woman in a man’s world. She’s the reason we have to have things like the Pink Boots Society, and Barley’s Angels, and ladies nights. Women can’t just show up and jump in yet, we still have to prove that these two lumps under our shirts don’t prevent us from thinking and doing, let alone appreciating and discussing.

Anyway, back to the labels. it doesn’t take much to see that beer labels are aimed in a particular direction. A lot of them look like metal band posters, stoner doodles and horror movie ads. As a graphic designer, I care less about the copious t & a and more about the sheer ugliness of the things. The taste level is what we should be talking about, here. Give me a crisp, clean label any day and I will dollars-to-donuts reach for your beer over the one that looks like a Xeroxed flier for that Pig Destroyer show in your buddy’s basement. Some of my favorites: beer labels

So, there we have it. An argument about visual preference, females, dudes, an ages-old idea of what appeals to beer drinkers (notice we’ve not even touched on how the stuff tastes, here), and perhaps one of the more important points designers take into consideration, we hope, is what the label says about the brewery itself at first glance. If I see a tasteful, clean label like the ones above, I get very little impression of what that brewery may be about. Is the minimal approach indicative that they save the goods for what’s inside the bottle? Do they just not like clutter? Do they want to give you a feeling before you take a sip or do they want you to simply open it and decide for yourself? And what about Three Floyds? When I look at their artwork, I see a bunch of misfits (dudes, honestly) who are into heavy guitars and who have ZZ Top-level beards, many black t-shirts, and have mastered the art of thrashing around with a half-full glass in hand. That is beer produced by a bunch of nutters, and it’s definitely working for them.

When I was 17, I wanted to dye my short hair oxblood red more than anything else in the world. I don’t remember what job I was working at the time, but I’m pretty sure I’d have had a harder time finding one than when I sported my standard brunette. I was indignant about what kind of narrow-minded jerk judges someone based on her hair color, and something about how it shouldn’t matter because I have a pretty good work ethic stomp stomp slam. But then I grew up and things stopped being theoretical. At the end of the day, I don’t care about a label as much as I care about what’s inside. If I’m so horribly offended, I’ll just pour the beer in a glass and banish the bottle to the bin. But handing someone their opinion before your brew has a chance to speak puts you near the back of the pack in a lot of ways, at least for people who do care about looks. And since women are among the fastest-growing group of beer drinkers, maybe it’s something worth caring about.

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