Friday, April 19, 2013

More Fancied Beer, Less Fancied Prices.

Beerpulse posted a brief item yesterday, citing an Under My Host podcast, about Stillwater Artisanal Ales preparing to increase production nearly fourfold. I can flesh things out a bit.

The report mentions that he plans to lower prices but doesn't get specific. Strumke told me in late March he expects a retail price of $11 for a four-pack of Cellar Door, his best-selling beer. "That's re-inventing my company," he said, by going with bigger volume. Lowering prices, "that's been my goal from Day One, just takes time."

I also asked him about how often he is going to Two Roads, his new contract brewery. "As much as I have to be," he said. "Brewing at that level is very automated. I've been up there re-designing it, because it doesn't scale up. Once it's dialed in, it's more efficient, it's better. But you can't just multiply things. It doesn't work like that. You have to re-create the beer."

He added that his goal, of course, is keep the product exactly the same as before.

Currently Stillwater beers are available in 35 states. He said that now they'll go to "pretty much every state" and also more countries.

He is clearly excited about the idea of making "regular beer" but of a very high quality. "I want to re-invent the way that people look at beer," he said. For example, with his Classique--which will be canned--"it’s our grandfathers new beer. What is it? It’s not a saison. It’s not a lager. It’s a fucking beer."

I tasted the Classique on draft. It's an austere thing, bone-dry and pale, with nowhere for its spicy-resin bitterness to hide--fine with me, as I didn't find it abrasive. At 4.5% strength it can be drunk in volume, not just made that way. Like his Premium, it's got corn and rice, a nod to American lager tradition.

If he makes enough of this stuff, with the Brewers Association still think him "traditional"?

"Why can’t you make a good beer with corn and rice? That’s bullshit."

Now just for fun, here is something I wrote for DRAFT in 2010, appearing in the March 2011 issue:

His Stillwater Artisanal Ales are generally found in 750mL bottles that sell for about $12 in a shop. Not everyday beers, then, but ones to carry to a dinner party. I have no problem with that. My worry is that, in shop after shop, bottles like these are crowding out more affordable options for those of us who want great beer anytime, not just for special occasions.

With mutual friends, I met Strumke in Baltimore at The Brewer’s Art. We lounged on sofas and sipped strong Belgian-style ales beneath a really impressive chandelier. With my tact eroded by alcohol, I whined about the price of his beer and he offered a sensible response. Damned if I could remember what it was. So I contacted him again and just asked.

“First off, I don’t see my beer as being overly expensive,” Strumke said. Yet making beer in small batches means there are no bulk deals for materials, and, “with that said, I have set out to make uncompromising beers with the best ingredients I can obtain. Price is not a deterrent as the goal is extreme quality.”

Basically, Strumke is making a small amount of beer for a group of people who can’t get enough of the stuff. “Craft brewing is, like it or not, part of the epicurean and artisan movement,” he said. “In my case, I make beer for the connoisseur, those who understand what I am trying to do and appreciate my efforts.”

I like Brian’s beer and respect his view. He takes real pride in his product, and after that, sales are the only metric that matters.

Yet his argument worries me a bit. Epicures and connoisseurs tend to have larger beer budgets than typical drinkers. I don’t like a line of thinking that leaves ordinary drinkers with lesser beers. We know from experience that great beer doesn’t have to cost much. There are a lot of price points out there, and room for all of them. But I want to see more of them on the lower end. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone. ...
Apologies for that photo, which is poor even by my standards. Late night, lots of events, yada yada. I even had a real camera on me and apparently chose not to use it.

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