Thursday, December 02, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: Putting your mouth where your money is … and letting go of one dream, in exchange for another.

It's late, it's long, it's pretty much unedited, and it finally makes sense to me.

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Sergio: The title is yours.

Lori and Tyler … take ‘em away, and best wishes.

Todd, you’ll be seeing me even more often.

For such a very long time – at least two years, probably closer to three – I persisted in thinking that the problem could be solved by enhanced organizational skills. It was a question of viewpoint, and of perspective. A few more facts, a little added tweaking, and it would be clear to me.

There were numerous helpers, bold new plans and wonderful ideas. Schemes came and went. Every time I thought the path was clear, something would happen. I’d be distracted by a crisis, overwhelmed by an obligation, or just realize that the latest brainstorm still didn’t make sense.

Usually, it was because all my time and attention were being devoted to Bank Street Brewhouse and NABC’s nascent beer distribution effort. I should have understood what all this meant, but I was stubborn, the cognitive dissonance grew and grew, and to be honest with you, there were times when I simply could no longer drink my way through it.

Now, finally, I can see the options clearly.

At long last, by means of the fortuitous intervention of serendipity, enough of the layers have been peeled away to reveal the crux of the issue, the root of the problem, and the necessity of the answer.

Until now, I never truly understood the far-reaching implications of my company’s expansion. Bear with me while I try to explain it.

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When NABC decided to take all the chips left on our table and bet the entire stash on the future prospects of Bank Street Brewhouse and its larger brewing system, with capacity four times the size of the original house brewery on Plaza Drive, it was an investment in our company, one that naturally we hoped would make the company stronger in terms of commerce. In short, we hoped to turn a profit by becoming more of a brewery.

But it was deeper than just that. Unlike one’s unprincipled investment in a fast food franchise, our gamble was predicated on a series of judgments, ideas and artistic themes derived from the ongoing success of America’s craft brewing revolution. We were investing in something unimaginable 25 years ago: Great American-made beer, and in fact, American-made beer so great that it increasingly was influencing the world’s beer making.

From the beginning, subject to the usual growing pains, this fact was understood very clearly in the context of daily operations at the Bank Street Brewhouse, both in the front of the house and in the brewery. The daily plan was, and continues to be, to remain as consistent as possible with the themes of the craft brewing revolution: Local, fresh, innovative, with the added, finished value of these offerings deriving from NABC’s uniquely creative style.

This is why Chef Josh seeks to obtain ingredients from local sources. This is why the wines are from Indiana winemakers only, and the liquors from independent, non-corporate entities. This is why we use Abstonia hops from the Knobs in season, and even if most of our brewing ingredients are from elsewhere, their added, finished value comes from the NABC brew team’s creative acumen.

All along, as Bank Street Brewhouse and NABC’s new production brewing operation took conceptual inspiration from “new” ideas, we maintained a conservative approach at the Pizzeria & Public House. We changed absolutely nothing about the tried and true, pizza-based food menu (not the precise point of the current discussion, although to be considered at some point later), and the beer program proceeded largely as before, with a handful of changes. Additional draft lines were freed to provide spouts for the wider selection of NABC’s own beers made possible by our increase in brewing capacity.

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Two decades ago, when the Public House first opened, the beer list was composed almost entirely of bottled imports, mostly from Europe, with only a handful of American-made “micros” even available. The beer list that made our reputation grew from this fact, and it made us famous.

As an avid reader of the beer writer Michael Jackson, and as a devout Europhile apart from beer, my travel experiences in Europe and my interest in the continent gave me insights that were unique, and contributed to a flair for forging contacts, cutting deals and making selections that played to these strengths.

It was all very good, doing what I (and we) did best. As the world’s classic beers became available, they joined the list, and the list grew. As the years went on, more and more American craft beers became available, and the list grew. We gradually added taps, and the draft possibilities duly exploded. In 2002, we started brewing, with the modest goal of adding completely different creations to the lineup.

Truthfully, in the mid-2000’s, NABC’s original locations was one of the few places anywhere to offer such a large selection of America’s and the world’s best beers, draft and bottled, alongside its own craft drafts. Even so, imperceptibly, the ground was shifting. It always does, doesn’t it?

American craft brewing was getting bigger and better, and in one of the inspiring turnabouts in world cultural history, American brewers began inspiring the Old World to rethink and embellish its traditional brewing ideas, resulting in a new generation of incredible imports to hit American shelves.

Then, one day, suddenly there were thousands of excellent beers from which to choose, hundreds of thousands of Internet ratings to peruse, and not only that, plans for NABC brewing expansion were coming close to fruition because we had decided to make more of our own beer.

About this time, perhaps 2007, I became very aware that with my life about to be reoriented toward getting a new business off the ground, a rapidly changing competitive landscape locally, and more world and American beers available as “guests” than ever before, the Pizzeria & Public House’s draft and bottled beer program (both guest crafts and guest imports) was in serious need of a rethink and some sort of upgrade so that it could remain among the best.

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There were many questions demanding answers, and things started getting difficult. With great beers all around, both from near and from far, how does one differentiate choices in the absence of pockets deep enough to stock 1,000 beers -- or even 300?

How does one do it on the imported side of the ledger when it isn’t always possible to get Indiana wholesalers and importers on the same page?

Even more importantly, how does one do it when all the company’s money is tied up in its expansion, now devoted to brewing and distributing NABC’s own house beers, and doing it during a sapping, maddening recessionary climate?

I haven’t been willing to face the truth until now, because the fact of the matter is this.

One doesn’t do it. It cannot be done.

Right here, right now, with the current circumstances inside NABC and outside it, I cannot revitalize the beer program at the Pizzeria & Public House if revitalizing it means retaining the previous format.

Make it different, and perhaps better, by accepting a changed situation, embracing change, rebuilding it from the ground up, and completely reinventing it by bringing it into line with the same motive forces that impelled NABC’s brewing expansion?

I think so, and I have a plan.

First, I must stop feeling sorry for myself, cease mourning for the loss of my baby of two decades, and get with the damned program. When NABC made its investment in brewing its own beers, it stopped being what it was before. It became something else, which always will be evolving, but in order to begin evolving, the program must change.

And it will. Our beer list’s carbon footprint is about to dramatically lessen.

As for permanent everyday bottles, there will be a dramatic reduction in imported brands; in essence, imports will be pared to a few brands that move dependably, and a handful of one-off styles (Trappists and Lambics among them).

Daily bottled American craft beers will stay about the same in number or be reduced slightly, but will be changed a bit in composition, with fewer of the same style, and more diverse flavor profiles. The BJCP list will continue to serve as a template for the bottled list remake.

You will continue to see a rotating import and craft seasonal presence – hopefully more consistent in appearance.

On the draft side, 15-18 taps will pour NABC beers. Another 8 – 10, maybe more, will pour Louisville-brewed beers and a sizeable contingent of beers brewed by Brewers of Indiana Guild member breweries. It is my desire to become an unofficial Louisville metro taproom for BIG, and in the process, offer a selection of under-appreciated beers from a state that, after all, has had two books published about its breweries this year, with a third on the way in early 2011.

After that, there’ll be American craft beers from all our friends all over the country: Stone, Bell’s, Sierra, Great Divide, Rogue, Left Hand, Dogfish, Founders and too many others to enumerate here.

Apart from Guinness, Spaten, Schlenkerla, Delirium Tremens, Lindemans and perhaps two other slots, draft imports will appear only at special times or during fests.

Understand that imports will not disappear entirely. If the annual Anstich shipments from Shelton still come across from Germany, I’ll try and score some. If an import we like is available, we’ll pounce on it and enjoy it while it’s here.

Imports no longer will comprise the backbone of the list, bottle or draft. That time is now finished for me, as much as I hate to say it. My heart won’t change, but my head will. We took it as far as we could, when we could and rather than fight futile battles that cannot be won, we’ll take stock of reality and compete elsewhere.

The new beer list, and the new beer program at the Pizzeria & Public House, will reflect the welcomed hegemony of American-made craft beers – as it should, and as it better reflects both the ideology and the dollar amount of our investment in craft beer, NABC-style. Win, lose or draw, there’ll be no cognitive dissonance.

Insofar as possible, I will use this space to update you on progress, and to report on the experience. Thanks for reading, and thanks for patronizing NABC.

3 comments:

Rick said...

You had me worried, for the first several paragraphs.

David said...

I read 3/4 of this thing expecting you to announce that Rich O's was closing or being sold.

Tom said...

I'm with everyone else, I thought something truly awful was happening.

You know what Roger? NABC makes damned fine beer. Yes it's great that you've been able to expose everyone to the variety you've been able to, but when push comes to shove it's more important that great beer is made in New Albany, IN.

Not telling you how you ought to feel (I hate when people do that), but I'm happy that this is how it's resolving itself.

Looking forward to being down in a couple of weeks!