What's Brewing at CBC
What does 20 mean?
It’s April Fool’s Day 2013. I thought about posting an outrageously funny press release about how CBC had been sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev, or how we’d begun canning a fizzy, yellow fruit malternative beer for the masses, or some other silliness. But despite the spirit of the day I typically find myself feeling reflective every April 1, as it was on this day in 1993 that I was hired as a brewer here at CBC, by my buddy Phil Bannatyne.
Apart from the usual clichés – breathing, being my parents’ son, etc. – there is nothing that I’ve done longer in my entire lifetime than to brew beer at CBC. In the cowboy days of the early 1990’s I’d begun homebrewing and then achieved the goal of getting paid to make beer as a professional. Young, earnest, tie-dyed and ponytailed, I thought cleaning kegs and tanks, and scrubbing floors, was a dream job. This is pre-Google era, so while we did endeavor to produce world-class beer we enjoyed only limited access to ingredients and even more limited information regarding the production methods of brewing international classic beer styles. It was not easy going, and we largely made it up as we went along, reverse-engineering the beers we wanted to brew since there was no one else making them. Darryl, Phil, and I cranked out some amazing beer for the day but it was backbreaking work. The reward was the sense of a job well done, the beer and camaraderie, the belief that we were joyously “sticking it to the man” by bucking the mainstream and showing people that there was more to life than Bud/Miller/CoorsLite.
It’s been an amazing 20-year journey, and I guess it’s true when they say that with age comes perspective. I’m feeling pretty full of perspective lately, as I watch the craft beer industry engage in its second big boom. Over 400 new breweries opened up in the U.S. in 2012 bringing our total number to now over 2,403, and there are reportedly well over another 1,000 in planning stages. I’m both excited and concerned by the number of new breweries and nano-breweries – excited by the energy and enthusiasm of new brewers who are willing to do the work themselves, to grow a new young business and hopefully succeed by the merits of their craft and abilities, but also concerned by a lack of education and experience among many of these brewers and the effect of potentially poor-quality beer on the market. This would affect the industry and our reputation as a whole, and those of us who have invested decades of their lives into craft beer would hate to see that happen. Additionally, this explosion of new breweries will put a strain on the supply side. Is there enough malt, hops, glass, etc. to go around? And will distributors, bar and shop owners, and restaurateurs continue to support and keep up with the “old school” and well as the new? Am I just feeling protectionist in my old age?
We’ve done this to ourselves. By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work. And I truly believe that there is no such thing as a gypsy brewer. In fact I know of only one couple, our friends at Pretty Things, who “reside” at another brewery but who actively create every drop of their own beer, each and every brewday. There’s a big difference between having that level of commitment and integrity, and claiming to be a “gypsy” because you occasionally show up at a brewery on days your beer is being made for you. If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simply not a brewer in my book. It’s more than just cutting open some bags of grain or making a ceremonious addition of hops or cacao nibs or some other exotic ingredient and Tweeting about it. I’m sorry if that offends some folks, but this is something that our industry – producers, retailers, consumers, everybody - will need to struggle with as time goes on. The Brewers Association made a valiant effort over the past year with their Craft Vs. Crafty campaign, exposing to the general public the lengths to which the international macro-industrial brewers are going to obfuscate the origins behind “fake craft” beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, etc. Unfortunately we are always reticent to take a look at the fingers pointing back upon ourselves, so we fail to give the consumer the opportunity to understand the differences among us – those who make beer, and those who just place orders for “their” beer, and the inevitable grey-ish line of separation. For our part, it is always vitally important to me that we give credit to the fine crew at Mercury Brewing Company who assist in the production of our Bottling Project beers. Those guys not only work incredibly hard, but they accommodate the CBC way of doing things, of extended tank time for maturation, of my perhaps overzealous need for redundancy in monitoring, cleaning, etc. It’s not easy taking care of another brewer when they’re in your house constantly. And while I’m there for every brewday start to finish, after a year and a half there’s still no way that I could run that whole place by myself. It’s crazy up there! I rely on them to communicate with me, to help with taking specific gravities multiple times daily during fermentation, to run the bottling line when it’s time to put our beer in the bottle and send it out towards its destiny. So three cheers to Dan and Rob and their gang for helping us succeed!
Another benefit of brewing at CBC for 20 years has been the opportunity to train and grow other brewers, and to witness the small but mighty CBC diaspora take place. Watching Ben Roesch found Wormtown Brewing in Worcester and Ben Howe found Enlightenment Ales in Lowell has been very rewarding. And of course everyone in Washington, D.C. is holding their breath in anticipation of the forthcoming Bluejacket Brewery under the brewing direction of CBC’s former Lead Brewer Megan Parisi. Knowing that the knowledge I’ve gained over the years from luminaries and peers (like Phil and Darryl and also Tod Mott, Paul Saylor, Peter Bouckaert, Dick Cantwell, Ken Grossman, and many more) has been shared with Ben and Ben and Megan makes me confident in their future success. On a daily basis we still receive emails from new homebrewers wanting advice on getting into brewing, requesting internships or looking for other volunteer opportunities, so the enthusiasm for the industry is in no way waning. I certainly hope that our beer educators like the American Brewers Guild, U.C. Davis, and Seibel Institute are up to the challenge of making sure that the people who make craft beer have the necessary skill set to do it properly, with integrity and quality and an unwillingness to compromise.
There’s significant pride (yeah, I know it’s a sin) in knowing that CBC has become a well-respected brewery internationally, and certainly pride in seeing our little brewery grow into our Bottling Project, where our very special beer can meet a wider audience. Hopefully this will lead us to the construction of our own brick and mortar brewery in the future, with an expanded barrel cellar, corked-and-caged sours, and more sexy stuff. Dare we dream?
There are many people to thank, only some of them mentioned above, for the success of CBC. Mostly, I’d like to thank CBC’s customers for their endless commitment to open-mindedness, their willingness to try new things, and their support for their local creative community. Hard to believe that CBC is itself turning 24 this year – but that’s another blog post!
And thanks to Phil Bannatyne, for giving that earnest young homebrewing hippy kid a chance.
“All art is either plagiarism or revolution.”