Monday, May 19, 2014

The PC: The uses of the past.

The PC: The uses of the past.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

For those just tuning in, this column used to appear at LouisvilleBeer.com, but henceforth will be published here each Monday. Previous columns at LouisvilleBeer.com are archived there.

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In the late 1980s, reports began filtering into Southern Indiana alleging the existence of an institution known as the brewpub.

It sounded crazy enough, and what’s more, the deliverers of this news tended to have a wild-eyed, messianic appearance; they’d seen the future, and it was a place that made beer of its own and served it to you right there, on site, as you sat and stared at a television screen just like at any other bar.

In other words, the way it had been done for thousands of years before being confined to factories.

At the time, my exposure to better beer while living stateside had come exclusively from the import aisle, although the time was fast approaching when I’d be called upon to give a helping hand to friendly local homebrewers by diligently drinking the remnants of their previous batch -- seated in a camp chair, cigar in jaw, watching as they labored to render the next one.

That’s what I call voyeurism, of a heightened, refined sort.

Thus it transpired that in 1992, just a few months before turning 32 years of age, I’d never had the pleasure of setting foot in an American brewpub. Not a single one.

To be sure, I’d visited European breweries both large (Carlsberg, Heineken) and small (U Fleku, Spezial), but upon returning home to metropolitan Louisville, our somewhat barren local beerscape remained, awash with dreadful low-calorie swill manufactured elsewhere in a factory.

Unknown to me, change was about to come. Serendipity always reigns supreme in our lives, and as the leaves reappeared during that spring of 1992, there was a turning point.

In May, I went to Chicago to take the State Department’s Foreign Service exam. Failing that (literally), there was time to navigate the CTA transport grid and visit the original, independent Goose Island brewpub, which deeply impressed me. Perhaps enjoying my first ever American brewpub experience at Goose Island is directly linked to my supreme and abiding disdain of what Trojan Goose has become since selling out to the beer assassins at AB-InBev.

By July of 1992, I’d made the decision to get into the food and drink business at the Public House formerly known as Rich O’s. Later that autumn the Silo, Louisville’s first brewery of the modern era, opened with David Pierce in the brewhouse. The Silo brewed its own beer and served it to us along with food.

Finally, we had brewpub, and had come full circle.

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A new era abruptly exploded, and with it came many more opportunities to visit brewpubs and microbreweries. I didn’t always travel in America, but when I did, I’d look for the places making beer on site.

Here is a list of 15 American breweries I visited during the 1990s

Baltimore Brewing in Baltimore, Maryland
Tucker Brewing in Salem, Indiana
Silo Brewery in Louisville
Pipkin Brewing in Louisville
Oldenberg Grill in Louisville
Oldenberg Brewing in Ft Mitchell, Kentucky
Silver Creek Brewing Corporation in Sellersburg, Indiana
Main Street Brewing in Cincinnati, Ohio
Barrel House Brewing in Cincinnati, Ohio
BrewWorks at the Party Source in Covington, Kentucky
Circle V Brewing in Indianapolis, Indiana
Crooked River Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio
Diamondback Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio
Champion Brewing in Denver, Colorado
Dixon’s Downtown Grill in Denver, Colorado

As you may have gleaned, what these 15 businesses have in common is that they are deceased, and if there is any one integral component of a sustainability doctrine, it is the necessity of the individual, business or ecosystem being animate, as opposed to dead. No pulse, no sustainability.

There were quite a few good beers brewed at these establishments, and also some stinkers. Some of them brewed for production and distribution, while others were oriented for on-site consumption. In my mind, each contributed something memorable to the narrative, and deserves to be remembered.

Ultimately, the reasons for them ceasing to exist lie outside the scope of today’s rumination, although we can reasonably surmise that these factors mirror those of other, non-brewing businesses: Variable leases, poor locations, business plans that went sour when the coin landed tails and not heads, or maybe plain bad luck. The slimmer the margin, the less margin for error.

And so on.

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It doesn’t require Sigmund Freud’s couch to deduce that given recent developments in my own business, where we’ve suspended the food program at Bank Street Brewhouse to concentrate on our beer, thoughts like these would come to mind.

Except that it goes beyond this, I think.

Having witnessed one boom ‘n’ bust cycle, perhaps I’ve developed a sensitivity to the possibility of a second one amid the current, applauded expansion of brewing. I desperately want it to work out like Great Flood’s opening, not Mobreki’s closing; the latter was a brewing operation in Madison, Indiana that never really got off the ground, suffered from quality issues, and folded this past winter (Mobreki’s equipment has landed in Jeffersonville at Red Yeti, which opens today with guest beers; best of luck to them).

I’d like to think that we, as the brewing community, might avoid the mistakes of a previous generation. However, as a longtime student of history, ignorance of past lessons isn’t a good place to begin when seeking to avoid repeat performances.

It has been 10 to 15 years since most of the breweries listed above closed, and we can learn a lot from their experience. Unfortunately, institutional memory is slim in the current milieu of self-absorption, masquerading as beer appreciation. As a result, certain virtues often are viewed as clich├ęs, but they shouldn’t be.

Quality is chief among them, because a reputation for quality is something one earns, over time. When quality is involved, you don’t mind history repeating itself. It isn’t always flashy. Rather, quality is about hard work – over and over again.

To me, the sought-after ideal of quality in “craft,” a word most of us use without ever contemplating its meaning, is an ethos manifested locally and independently. At RiverRoots this past weekend, I thought about it often while examining pottery and other handmade items, and listening to a fellow play the dulcimer.

It occurred to me that condemning the dulcimer’s construction because one doesn’t like the music it creates is misplaced, especially coming from someone styling himself a music enthusiast. In like fashion, last week an on-line commentator maligned the quality of my product line because all 30 beers we brew in a year aren’t IPAs.

I’m forced to conclude that he’s tone deaf.

What can we do about that, anyway?

2 comments:

Patrick J Ryan said...

Do you mean to say that "quality" should be based on regional tastes? That perhaps not every brewery should create an IPA, as there are already hundreds in the market?

The New Albanian said...

That's part of it. The other part is that I'm finding it tedious to listen as a Best Bitter is called a "bad" beer and "rated" poorly not because it's bad, but because it isn't an Imperial IPA. Go past the familiar extreme styles, and style knowledge is absent.