Battle Royale

Bottle shop v brewery v brewpub

I recently took a trip to flyover country, the American Midwest, home of the Field of Dreams, Iowa. There were several reasons for the trip, but at it’s core, it was meant to be an opportunity to explore Iowa’s craft beer scene, specifically the breweries that have opened over the last decade plus around Des Moines. As I sat at brewery after brewery, and one single taproom, I was taken back to a topic I’ve been thinking about off and on for a few years now – the difference between bottle shops, ‘taprooms’, and brewery taprooms. In places where the population doesn’t support ten breweries per square mile, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from when you go out looking for the craft beer experience – there’s the local brewery, and local bars, and if you’re lucky a high-end leaning gastropub or national chain (think Red Robin) that features the kinds of beer you can’t find in the local grocery store of most smaller or rural markets.

It can be easy to forget the vast distances that define the American heartland, and the people spread out among the hills and fields of places like Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa, if you don’t visit or look out the window when you fly to some more tropical locale. The town I stayed in claims some 5,700 residents, but much of that claim includes large stretches of farms before it runs into the creeping sprawl of Ankeny, with 70,000 Hawkeyes living a half hour north of greater Des Moines, itself with just under 700,000 people spread out in a 15×20 mile patch of dirt that is quite under-developed. Single-family homes on tidy, sizeable lots march off into the distance in neighborhoods without sidewalks or any thought to a shared transit system (aside from the school buses that ferry screaming kids several miles each day).  

It was a solid half-hour drive from the airport to my friend’s house, on the northern edges of another sprawling Des Moines suburb, Johnston. There weren’t many obvious places where people might congregate in the way you see in places like Portland, at least not outside of the downtown areas where they’ve put the focus on developing smaller eateries and a few beer-centric places that I simply couldn’t get to. Everything is just soooo spread out that even in the residential areas in the city itself, you don’t get any feeling of community or neighborhood character, outside of maybe the era the homes were built. It simply doesn’t feel like a critical mass of attractive businesses and nicer, modern housing has accumulated anywhere in particular – compared to places like Portland, where you can walk any number of neighborhoods and find an endless amount of commerce on every corner. I suspect that many Iowans would enjoy the sorts of business opportunities and relaxations that I can choose from in Portland, all within that same 30-minute drive that I took to go from one end of Des Moines to the other. Yes, there are drawbacks to living in the city, but that’s not the point today. I’m trying to put to words the different cultures that I feel that drive a different sort of interface between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – consumers and producers. 

Obviously, I must admit that I cannot possibly know everyone’s reasons for locating where they do and why they chose the approach they do, but in my quest to visit all these places I have gained some insight into matters that escape the average local family dad looking to have a pizza and some beer made locally. I enjoy going to breweries, but there is a limited experience available, even at the most renowned and celebrated locations of the best breweries you could name. Each brewer and owner has a vision of their beer and the way they want them enjoyed and seen and presented, and this is all great and fine, but the last few years have seen the limitations that can come along with trying to make your brewery the destination, and the only place your fans can get your product. The fallout from Covid lockdowns is percolating, as businesses in all sectors are still seeing depressed revenue, compared with pre-covid numbers. There is a wave of economic reporting that’s about to crash into the American economy that will sound pretty bad, when looked at from the big angles. Some of the smaller angles will be ugly, too, but there will be some movement towards a more stable market because of these uneven rebounds, and if you’re trying to support your local brewers, it’ll help to understand some things.  

Caught up in this strange economic conversation will be your favorite local brewery, who hopefully didn’t go balls-deep in expansion debt in 2019. Or maybe they did expand, riding a wave of success that demanded they go big and take a slice of their local market. The number of breweries that opened in 2019 that didn’t make it, vs the number that did…that’s a deep-dive topic that runs alongside what I’m reaching for here. The need for a local bottle shop can run directly into headwinds from a popular local business, the regional distributor, or any number of other sources, but once established they’re better positioned to weather the kinds of troubles that faced most businesses over the last 3 years. It’s important to understand the basics of the kind of place that you like to consume your beer, even if there isn’t much choice in most smaller markets – yet. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because I’m not sure most people even have the kind of bottle shop I’m talking about anywhere near them – I’m sure it’s still probably illegal in some states, too – but most people have at least been exposed to the kind of place that will soon be competing for your beer dollars. 

Yeah, I buy my beer at a shop. It has bottles..? 

Oregon seems to be somewhat unique in my experience, in that it allows several different levels of sales of alcoholic products, from basic sales to on-site consumption. This results in hybrid retail establishments that have a draft license, pre-packaged offerings from multiple sources, and focus completely on beer (or wine, which is given similar lattitude as far as retail outlets are concerned). My favorite example is John’s Marketplace in Multnomah Village – I’ve probably mentioned John’s before, and have purchased hundreds(thousands) of dollars worth of beer there in the 7 years or so I’ve been in the area.  

I can’t forget the tiny little shop in Astoria that I spent a lot of time in, Bridge & Tunnel, which kept me in delicious beers through the darkest hours on the coast (and there are some very dark hours out there). The owner Duane had quit a job in finance somewhere (so the story goes) and opened his beer store right down the street from a still-growing Fort George, catching overflow, curious and lost tourists who clog the sidewalks for a few months (weeks?lol) every summer. He knew some folks, and had the gumption to go ahead and bring great beer all the way out to one of the farthest points you could pick on a map, from all the other places you can find great beer. I am always looking at new beers in places like B&T and have a healthy respect for the small shop owner that can keep the good stuff coming in regularly and often, and I was never bored when I was sitting at Duane’s bar.  

You can’t talk about this stuff without getting into the murky waters of distribution; in this case it’s the end of the chain that makes a difference in the quality and selection of a small bottle shop in a small tourist town that’s empty 8 months of the year. Duane has to cultivate his contacts to satisfy the cravings of a customer that might be looking for their favorite IPA from Vermont or Michigan. I was always delighted to find beer from across the country on hand, these little packages of metal wrapped in pastel artwork and holding delicious nectar, created with care by someone as passionate about the beer as I am (hopefully) somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. I’m kind of a romantic at heart, I guess, because I want to believe it matters, that the little touches and effort of a small brewer MATTER, that my respect of that work matters. So much of what we consume in the US is mass-produced and wrapped in plastic and the creators are freakin’ robots in China, and taking the time to appreciate the craftsmanship of something, ANYTHING in today’s life is underrated. And so, sitting in a small bottle shop in Astoria, on the far west coast, I was often left in awe of the product of someone whom I will never meet, for at least as long as it took me to drink it.   

Here in Oregon, shops like Bridge & Tunnel have significant leeway in how they acquire their products, as it’s been written into law and practice by the OLCC’s interpretations. A small operator like Duane is allowed to go outside of the general distribution network to get beer from other states, for instance, because most Oregon distributors cannot or will not. However, some states still require a third party distro to manage wholesale and interstate sales, which complicates efforts but still allows for a motivated shop owner to get beer from all over the country. As the industry has opened up, more pressure against traditional distribution has meant a cascade of new beer hitting shelves in other parts of the country that simply could not get them before. When you walk into a Portland bottle shop, you’re as likely to find Heady Topper (a staple from VT) as you are something from Great Divide (Colorado) or Prairie Artisan Ales (Oklahoma).  

The biggest difference, though, is the on-site consumption of any of the merchandise (beer/wine/cider) for a small corkage fee. The bottle shops I’ve been to in other states never had on-site consumption of anything, not taps nor pre-packaged from the shelf, whereas it is common here in Oregon. I’m sure they’re allowed elsewhere, but I’m struggling to remember the last place outside of Oregon where I could buy a bottle…there was a place in Jacksonville way back in 2008 I remember that had Stone bombers (I think I was probably a bit snarky about the $9 per bottle cost, little did I know what the future would hold…) but they were a gastropub, the precursor of the modern brewpub. Or maybe they’re still a thing in other states? I simply haven’t had the chance to travel as much as I’d like to have recently. Maybe things have changed.  

THE PLUG 

This is the part where I start asking for people to ping my patreon for a buck or two. I’d like to go places and do on-the-ground writing about what I find when I poke around the corners of the country. I have been working on a number of drafts covering a whole bunch of topics, and I’ve even started dreaming about them recently. I don’t know what my future holds, but if I have the chance to keep writing about these things and doing actual research, I will. I’ll also be honest and tell you any support I get will be spent on either beer or the administration of this effort in some way. My nascent media empire (Autoneurotic Media) needs a few dollars a month, and I’m even adding pictures to my blog soo….yeah. I’d rather not monetize things with ads or other garbage but I also spend a lot of time just writing so help a guy out, buy me a pint! 

 GAME ON 

So I mentioned a place in Jacksonville (Kickbacks Pub, still open!) that a lot of people will find familiar, as compared to the actual bottle shops in their areas, which are usually just retail sales locations and don’t offer anything else. The gastro or brew pub is a bar or resturant that has a number of beers on tap and food and maybe some other entertainment or attraction, like say Old Chicago or Ruby Tuesday or, increasingly, chains like Applebee’s and BWW will feature a wider array of beers than the straight-up domestic beers that would once have been the only options. Bud v Bud Lite v Coors v Miller Lite is no longer on display, having been replaced with flagships from Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Sam Adams and the like. As the craft beer market expanded, the larger distributors in these markets started offering more selection, but when you walk into one of these places in most parts of the country you’ll be limited to a fairly predictable spread of beers that only dabble in the direction of ‘craft’ and cost the same without much of the flavor. Even here in Portland, these sorts of places don’t break the mold by much, despite having options that far surpass the top-20 on the books down at Columbia (the Big Distributor in Oregon, they often dictate entire isles of product placement in the state). Many of the larger chain ‘pubs’ don’t want to deal with smaller self-distributed breweries here in Oregon or the smaller distributors, who might struggle to keep regular stock or make timely deliveries. In most other states that haven’t updated distribution, I’d have to suspect it’s much harder to run a single gastropub and have a respectable selection without the constant hassle of going outside of the local distributor to find something that 8 other places in town also have on tap this week.  

One of my favorite places in Iowa was called Bricks in downtown Cedar Rapids, and I lived not far away while working full-time at Godaddy (one of Iowa’s original pet technology companies). You might say I had some disposable income, and the front door of my apartment was a 6-minute walk away (one whole minute for the elevator). The local brew club (Cedar Rapids BeerNuts) held monthly meetings there and we were allowed to share homebrew and bottles we’d got, and the owner was very involved in cultivating a unique selection of beer that was hard to find anywhere else in Iowa – while still maintaining enough ‘domestic’ brands to get the dollars from the still very-domestic local bro crews. I spent many evenings at the bar quietly listening (cringing) and judging people’s beer selections, constantly asking myself what the actual fuck I was still doing, back in Iowa, (again), trying to converse with absolute hicks more often than not. I spent a lot of time backing away from political conversations, and this was well before a certain orange con artist rode down his golden escalator.  

There were another half dozen places like Bricks when I left Iowa in 2015, featuring some really excellent beer, some with a focus on Iowa and local Midwest beers specifically. But there was only one or two bottle shops, and they only sold pre-packaged stuff, even if they did offer a wide range of local and imported beers. So you could either post up at bar and explore the taps, or go buy your fancy bottles (and they were mostly still bottles at that time) and drink them somewhere else – but never the two options together.  

And certainly none of that horseplay was welcome at the local breweries. Absolutely not. It’s still often that way in most brewery taprooms around the country, where you’re there to try their beers and that’s it. Post-pandemic, most breweries have their pre-packaged beers to-go, at least here in Oregon, but in the before times it wasn’t always a sure bet. Crowlers – 32oz cans that are poured and sealed to-go and as-ordered – were still catching on in a lot of places when covid rolled through and gave everyone the opportunity to start canning everything. When you went to the brewery you were there to drink their draft beer and that was it, unless you were at a truly progressive pub that had a guest tap or two from another local joint. These days it’ll be a cider or seltzer or (NEW FOR 2023) a non-alcoholic variant, or maybe even some wine to cater to the folks who’d rather drink acid than beer. If you’re reading this, you almost positively have sat in a brewery in your hometown that was quirky and had a bunch of local cred and an interesting food menu and an outdoor patio and at most a dozen beers that were still ‘rough drafts’ compared to what you’d find at the brewpub. 

I have been fortunate to have been a guest or regular customer at many, many, many (hundreds) of breweries over the years. Something like 200+, but that’s a rough estimate. Unfinished concrete floors, some rough-finished wood accents, stainless steel. Lots of glass. Some of these places are better than others but the feeling you’re left with is a capable, young business that has a vision of their future and for their products (hopefully). I found myself at the grand opening of La Cumbre in Albuquerque, on the patio/parking lot of Bold City Brewing in Jacksonville, at the opening festivities of Lion’s Bridge in Cedar Rapids, and talking to brewers of Old Capitol Brewing in Iowa City (now River Ridge in Davenport) when they were still pushing out their first batches for sale at the pub.  

TREEHOUSE. yep.

The thing all these breweries had in common (at first) was that they were only selling their beer at the brewery itself, or to a very limited selection of restaurants and pubs that had somehow gotten wind of their beer, and often had to get the kegs themselves. I had tried Bold City’s IPA and brown ales at the monthly Artwalks in downtown JAX, where they would set up a keg and hand tapper and give away beer for a nominal tip from the 2nd floor of the old library. They were still working on the brewery, with difficulty getting the permits and operating license from the city. That is one quiet secret in the industry – many of these breweries have made thousands of gallons of test batches on their equipment before they ever sell a single pint. That beer goes somewhere…

The business model is uniform, with little variation in the approach overall. The stories of these places are with the owners and brewers and wives and parents of the people who have opened them, and they are the heart of this industry. But they’re self-limiting in scope, and that left them hanging when lockdown closed their primary and secondary sources of revenue; on-site sales and keg sales to draft retail outlets, often through larger distributors if they were lucky, evaporated overnight.  

I had my head down in that period myself, and it was painful to read about the constriction of so many dreams, so many gallons of beer dumped, so much wasted effort because there was simply no way for any of it to get to market. I guess there was a certain amount of ‘correction’ of the market overall in a sense, with marginal breweries scrambling to correct that limited business model. There was panic everywhere. And this is where the differences of the places I’ve described above come out and make an impact in how they have gotten through the last few years, and where they see themselves. I’m taking the time to go over the different kinds of drinkeries I’ve seen because there are variables at play to keep track of, if you want an accurate picture of the bigger industry. If you were a brewery that didn’t have a strong packaging operation at the end of 2019, you were probably in trouble 6 months later. If you were a gastropub or taproom in any state that took lockdown seriously, you were hurting pretty bad. If you were a bottle shop you were probably doing alright as soon as they relaxed retail sales outlets (many were able to stay open completely, and saw a surge of new business as breweries all over the country suddenly started canning).  

IT’S NOT LIKE THAT WHERE I LIVE, NOT AT ALL 

Well, this is just one man’s opinion, okay? I’ve been spending a lot more time reading industry materials recently and most of it lines up to what I already felt, on the whole. I had a 3rd shift job during covid and have always fought to find motivation and mood to write things like this. I am barely breaking the surface of these topics, and spending too much time on twitter simply promoting myself and catching up on other material, and the industry is changing so fast it’s hard to get to everything I want to connect together. Of course I don’t know what the local tap scene is like in Ashville or Miami or anywhere else, for that matter. I have nurtured this little dream of being a professional beer tourist for a long time, writing drafts and talking about beer endlessly to anyone that would listen (People ask “Do you work at a brewery?” more than they ask for my name) just because it was a comfortable hobby, and I didn’t want to ruin my hobby. I’ve said that before and will again, it’s why I don’t want to commit to a single brewery – for some reason I sabotage all the good things in my life.  

The flip side of this is that I’m aware of so much more going on than I would be if I were a fanboy of just one local brewery. I try to be fair and generous when reviewing my life (haha I don’t review your beer it just happens to be in MY hand at the moment, lucky you) so you can feel reasonably confident in my opinions, except where I’ve said so explicitly (see my above pleas for funding).  

WHAT?

In order for other people to understand my opinions better, I just wanted to explain the places I drink beer a little more. Where you drink your beer determines what you drink, and some places are more suited to certain types of drinking than others. I prefer the Oregon version of the bottle shop, where I can peruse many types of beer from many different breweries all over the country, selecting just the right beer for my immediate mood (or just as often wandering for ten minutes, culling hundreds of beers into a top-5 list before settling on just one) – even though there are often dozens of great breweries in the same area as the bottle shop. I wonder if people in other states would appreciate this kind of retail outlet, and reasonably relax state laws to facilitate a hybrid retail model like I enjoy in Oregon, if only they knew there was another way.  

Maybe there’s a subset of people out there that are more interested in this kind of personal take on the industry itself. I’m a little too honest (if I’m honest) and I’m okay with that if you all are. Maybe you just need something to read while you wait at your favorite taproom for your friends. If you talk about any of this, you can let ‘em know you were right about beer. That’s a shameless plug. Repeat it so you’ll remember when your friends ask you how you know so much about these things all of a sudden. I’m thinking about what I could do to help other people write more about beer (and, increasingly, other related industries under OLCC regulation) and if I can inspire others to jump in and not worry about what it looks like, cheers to that. Obviously, I’d like to get paid, and there’s only so much room at the top…but I’ll allow groupies and cheerleaders and hangers-on to also enjoy the ride.  

IT’S ALL BOUT YOU, INNIT?  

Duh. Seriously though, the next few years will be rough for the folks that have survived so much already. They need your support in ways that are familiar to so many people now – like their posts on social media, write them up and share your positive reviews on google and yelp, check their beers in and even rate them (gasp! Check out a post I did on reviewing beer from 2020) . There are so many reasons to get more involved in your local beer scene before you even crack a fresh can. As I write this, I’m chatting with the bartender of the Beaverton outpost of Ex Novo, tossing around ideas, and she’s taking photos for the brewery socials and I’m trying to take a decent shot of a tall and dark lager, and it’s like a shared struggle for just a moment. I don’t have to work for a brewery to work for them – this is one of the only industries where your participation matters directly to the people you’ll see while you’re there. Aside from walking into the kitchen and running a few racks of plates through the dish machine, you can’t get much more involved than repping your favorite flagship or wax-dipped bottle. Maybe your favorite company will see you out there and find room for you on their payroll. It could happen, I know another guy named Jeff who is doing better and better every time I check in with him. He’d tell me patience is a virtue, or something really zen like that. And I’d ask him to sign another Beer Bible because I gave my last one to my friend. Because I support my people.  
 
Cheers to you, wherever you have your next pint. Get out there and have fun.