Apparently Jackie Chan is a beer person. Who knew? Perhaps it keeps him limber for his fight scenes. A Jackie Chan posted a comment today to my first post about the new cans at 21st Amendment. Jackie also left an e-mail address at goodbeer.com. Now goodbeer.com is the domain name of Speakeasy Ales & Lagers in San Francisco. I spoke to brewery co-owner Steve Bruce this morning and he assured me Jackie Chan does not work for them. I was certainly glad to hear he was still making movies.
Here is the comment from Mr. Chan:
Unfortunately, they [21st Amendment] are not canning the beer with a real canning line; they have an extremely labor-intensive, slow 2-can filler and separate seamer requiring them to physically handle every can and move them around before they are seamed. The air-levels will not come close to that of a real canner (or even a good bottler), there are substantial microbio issues as the system is slow and not sealed, and there will likely be massive variance in carbonation (and probably taste as a result of all the factors I have listed). In a nutshell, these cans will have terrible shelf-stability and it will probably be a crapshoot every time you crack one open.
A real canner is great for beer… but this ain’t that.
So either someone else who works there and wants to remain anonymous is unhappy with the idea of 21st Amendment having beer cans to sell or someone who doesn’t work there wants me to think that. I suppose it could be a coincidence and goodbeer.com was chosen at random but that somehow doesn’t seem likely to me. The commenter certainly sounds knowledgeable and appears to know the basic process, which means he sounds like someone who may be a brewery worker. But Jackie is apparently unaware that I showed the hand canning process in great detail two weeks later, including that it is slow and done by hand. I did pitch in and saw that each can is, of course, sanitized and the process seems as hygienic as any other bottling I’ve seen. There are currently twenty-five small breweries hand canning, three in California, and many more in Canada and abroad. If there really were such a bad sanitary and consistency problem we’d have heard about it by now. And people have been hand bottling 22 oz. bottles for decades. That’s how most microbreweries started offering packages in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many still do. They’d have all the same problems Jackie brings up yet I’m not aware of any endemic problem with hand bottling.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion and it’s not really my job to defend canned beer. I think it’s an interesting trend that’s not likely to go away anytime soon so I personally thought it best to learn as much as I could about it. And I also wanted to keep an open mind since I, too, have long thought the can inferior to the bottle. But through this adventure that’s starting to change. Plus, we’ve all seen so many bottling lines that I thought this was something different and worthy of attention.
When I told Steve Bruce why I was calling him, he didn’t think anyone from Speakeasy would have send that message. And overall, I tend to agree with him. I like Speakeasy and I love their beer. Big Daddy and Double Daddy are two of my favorite big, hoppy beers. I wish them all the success in the world and would do whatever I can to support them in their efforts to bring good beer culture to the masses. So it certainly seemed odd that whoever sent it used their domain name.
In the end it’s hard not to view this comment as sour grapes, regardless of its origin. And that brings me to the point of this dreary post. Infighting. Which from now on I will continue to refer to as Kung Fu Fighting in honor of Jackie. Both Sam Calgione, of Dogfish Head, and Dave Buhler, of Elysian Brewing, in their respective speeches at the opening of this year’s Craft Brewing Conference stressed the importance of the craft industry working together. It’s been a subject we’ve all been talking about at least as far back as Kim Jordan’s keynote address at the New Orleans CBC three years ago, though the idea of course was not original to her. In fact, as long as I can remember one of the things I’ve liked best about the craft beer industry is that it’s like an extended family. Brewers help each other because most realize we’re all in this together. When one succeeds we all succeed.
I know, of course I know, that that’s a romantic ideal that’s not exactly the reality we face. There is Kung Fu Fighting. There always has been and there probably always will be. Even the closest family members sometimes root for or revel in the failure of their siblings. We don’t want to believe it’s true but sometimes it is. But doing so is counterproductive, in my opinion. Otherwise we’ll never reach a tipping point where a majority of Americans realize what we already know: that better beer and the culture of great beer enhance the pleasures of this life. Good beer makes almost everything a little better. The food we eat, the company we keep, and our enjoyment of life are all improved by having a vibrant beer culture. Don’t think so? Imagine your life if all you could drink was American-style lager and virtually nothing else was available, roughly the situation our parents lived through. My father thought Heineken was the pinnacle of what life had to offer. Today, I wouldn’t drink that swill on a bet. Can you imagine a world with no organic food, no slow food movement, no great coffee, no gourmet cheese, no artisanal breads, no fine wine, and no craft beer? So many different kinds of products have evolved over the last few decades that it’s almost unimaginable to think of life without them. How dull would our lives be if reduced to only Maxwell House, Wonder bread, Kraft cheese, Blue Nun and a Schlitz.
But here we are. We have choices that were unthinkable a generation ago. Whole new industries have grown up before our very eyes. But the makers of all the mass-produced foods and beverages have not gone away, nor will they anytime soon. They are huge, massive companies with immense resources. And they’ve been losing market share for decades. They have but one goal in mind: to crush their competition and get back on top. In our case, it’s the big breweries, both domestic and foreign. They’ve turned beer into a commodity, a highly engineered food product. In my opinion, beer is best when it’s a balance of art and science, and the big breweries have raised the science of brewing to such heights that the art has been lost in the process. Technicians work at big breweries, artisans at craft breweries.
But after several years when the industry was losing ground — when the predicted shakeout took place in the late 1990s — craft beer suddenly stabilized and started a slow steady period of growth again that has continued to the present. And it’s been growing slowly now for a number of consecutive years and in fact even the gains have been increasing. We’re still a drop in the barrel compared to the Goliaths. Fourteen-hundred breweries still account for less than 4% of total beer production in the whole country. And now in the last year the biggest Goliath, Anheuser-Busch, has engaged in price wars with the other big breweries and is losing revenue. In fourth quarter last year they experienced a 54.7% drop in income before taxes. To keep their fingers in the dyke, the big breweries have been signing distribution deals (or in some cases trying to) with both import beer and microbreweries. At least one has tried a half-hearted PR campaign to celebrate beer in general. And we’re seeing more stealth micros, products from the big breweries masquerading as craft beer. So despite having a market share the size of a gnat, the giants are coming after us. What will be most important in the coming months is how we respond.
That’s why this morning’s comment rankled me so much. Because whatever prompted it and whoever posted it, at first blush it appears to be Kung Fu Fighting. It appears to be another brewery raining on the parade of another’s good news, throwing water on a fire just as it’s being built, or just trying to spread dirt on a fellow craft brewer. Whatever your metaphor, I don’t think it’s good for the industry to have any infighting, no matter how juvenile. We should be helping one another, not putting each others kegs in the street, so to speak. We need to all stick together and work together toward the common goal of reaching more and more people until we reach a tipping point of critical mass. Where is that point? I don’t know, but I believe we’ll know it when we get there. And in the meantime, no one, not even Sierra Nevada or Boston Beer, is big enough to reach enough people alone. We need each other, now more than ever. I hate war metaphors, but if there is an “enemy,” the enemy is out there. He most definitely is not or should not be among us. We cannot afford to engage in martial arts. We can’t be fast as lightning against each other because yes, it is a little bit frightening. And we’re going to need expert timing for the coming battles. We have to stop Kung Fu Fighting.
As I see it, there won’t be a better time to start working together then right now. This is it. Or at least this could be it, our time. This could be the moment we look back on and say this is when it all began. 2006 was the year when things started to change. The year when the media started paying attention to craft beer, when consumers in ever growing numbers started seeking out beer with flavor. The year when people choose the perfect beer to have with their ham, instead of trying to force wine to do a job it’s not well suited to do. The year people stock their kitchens with several types of beer glasses so they’ll be prepared when friends drop by with a bottle of Cuvee de Tomme or Pangaea to share. But in order to attain a goal of that magnitude, we unequivocally MUST work together as brothers and sisters on a quest, be able to trust one another implicitly and take pride and celebrate the successes of our brethren.
“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.” Hey, it’s a better song than Kung Fu Fighting.
Let’s eradicate Kung Fu Fighting in our lifetime.