Beer. My Journey.

I sell beer, both to beer drinkers and to regular people who happen to want to drink beer. In a 3 mile radius, where ten years ago there were a dozen legitimately different beers on draft – so I estimate – now there are hundreds. Where there were a few dozen available by the bottle, now there must be a thousand or more. And though admitting it is more shameful than ever, there is a lot of disappointment in the selection process. A plurality of imbibers are bamboozled by misinformation and terrified of appearing stupid. The self-appointed experts and professionals are failing them.

Naturally I blame success. The booming market increases incentive for commercial interests to perpetuate confusion. Money is made more in the brief seconds at the point of sale, and less in the scrupulous and time-consuming practices that produce beer which one might want to drink on a sustainable basis. Appraisal trumps use. The formula is clear: 1) escalate novelty, 2) breed viral brands in an environment of attention spans 3) shortened by an avalanche of artificial differentiation. The vastly more numerous casual beer drinkers don’t stand a chance connecting clues about quality and objective merit. “I wanted an Amber, and I hate Pale Ale. I’LL HAVE AN IPA!”

It’s the same crappy beer choices we had in the 1970s, only they are flavored differently. I’ve seen it happen to wine and Tequila and cigars. I also claim to have 30 years of perspective. Here is my person beer journey timeline.

1984 – After sampling various lagers and malt liquors at high school parties, I decided I would be loyal to the brand Moosehead. To this day I suspect that all of these beers were better then than they are now, as true for Mickey’s as for Harp.

1987 – Introduced by a friend of the owner, I became a regular at Gusoline Alley in Royal Oak. The slogan boasted “50 seats and 100 beers,” or something like that. This was my introduction to Orval, Sam Smith’s, Franziskaner and all the rest. New domestic small breweries made their first appearance during this time too: Breckenridge, Pete’s Wicked Ale and Bell’s. I studied hard.

1991-1993 – I lived in Germany and drank as many various beers in as much volume as I possibly could. This involved week long explorations of beer available in Holland, England, Czechoslovakia (as it was then known), Austria and Switzerland. I know what you’re thinking. I missed Belgium. Well, not completely. I did spend one night in a train station in Antwerp drinking bottles of lager from a vending machine. I think it’s only fair to count this as missing Belgium.

1997-2000 – I salaried as beer and wine buyer for several Merchant’s of Vino/Whole Foods, which at the time had one of the largest retail selections of beer in the region. This was my first encounter with Brasserie St. Sylvestre, Hoegaarden, and the various beers of Great Lakes and North Coast, to name some examples. I remember assuming the buying duties of the Farmington Hills store shortly after the promotion of the previous buyer to a store-level position. Interestingly, he had kicked out Budweiser from our set, on the basis of various grievances. Such a move was unheard of at the time and the fallout was interesting to witness.

2001-2007 – I managed Cloverleaf Fine Wine and Spirits. This chapter could form its own lengthy blog post, so I’ll touch on highlights. This was the first retail set that offered every beer by the single bottle for the same rate that it sold by the six-pack (or 4 or 12.) We also used a strictly rational  – thus radical – approach to beer storage and preservation, informed by a rigorous double blind study of the effects of various storage environments on various beers. I contributed close to a thousand tasting notes to Beer Advocate and got involved in that site’s discussion forums. After one trip to New York I learned that there was a particularly interesting import collection of beers – Shelton Brothers – which was barely being offered in Michigan. After some phone calls and promises of support, the portfolio was brought in and divided between local wholesalers – Arbor and Rave – who briefly competed with each other for the claim to sell the most volume. It was shortly after this time that I met Phil Cooley of Slows and Mark Brown of Red Coat Tavern, both of whom easily recognized and exploited the availability of these beers to enhance their own ambitious beer programs. Incidentally, here are the current weighted rankings of these beer sellers on Beer Advocate:

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2009-present – I am mostly responsible for serving barbecue at Slows. Here I have relatively little directly at stake in the beer trade. Instead I am surrounded by it and enjoy a certain day-to-day surveyor’s vantage point. It is clear that there are many different conversations about beer happening simultaneously and often in contradiction of one another.

In my next post I will share some of my opinions about beer for sale in Michigan in the present day.

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