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Oakes Weekly - June 16, 2005

The Little-Known Brewers
Oakes Weekly June 16, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

You can pretty easily sit down and list off your own personal list of America’s best brewers. The big names may not be big breweries, but their beer gets around. But that doesn’t mean that they are the only really good brewers around. For one reason or another, many brewers making solid beers remain a little unknown.

Some of these brewers are on the cusp of celebrity status. Southern Tier, located south of Buffalo, has great regional distribution and several solid brands. But they’re only a couple of years old so word hasn’t gotten around to all corners of the country. In terms of profile, Southern Tier reminds me of Dogfish Head in the late 90’s. The name is known, they’ve had some solid beers, but they need to knock a few out of the park to get them over the hump into superstardom.

At the other end of New York State, another brewery reminds me a bit of a young Dogfish Head. Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Craft Ales brewer Shane Welch has the right attitude towards brewing – a focus on innovative concepts as well as perfectionism in ingredient selection – and this has manifested itself in some interesting early brews. But just as early Dogfish brews like Chicory Stout and Shelter Pale were enough to get noticed but not enough to catapult them to the national stage, Sixpoint’s current stuff isn’t bad, but five years from now they will be known for beers they probably haven’t thought up yet.

Another brewery in a similar situation is Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing. They’re much older, and have received national praise especially from Stephen Beaumont regarding their White Sage Tripel, but in their case a non-beer-savvy market and limited distribution have kept them under the radar of beer lovers. Brewer Mark Jilg is a contrarian – he wants to do what others aren’t doing. The result is beers like the White Sage and Cabernale (where an amber ale is infused with cabernet grapes). Craftsman is planning to expand from its current 7bbl system to a 17bbl one, which hopefully will get them to more people.

For some of America’s best little-known brewers, the distance from major beer markets is part of the reason for their relative obscurity. Free State, in Lawrence, Kansas, has been around since 1989 when they became the first brewery in Kansas in over 100 years. They do well locally with their highly-respected beers based and a market driven by a large student population and Fort Leavenworth’s Officer Training School, but being on the Plains they are far from any of the major beer markets and thus stay off the radar of the beer geek community. Even the people who have heard of them often haven’t had their products.

Not located in a small city, Titanic Brewing of Coral Gables, FL is nonetheless smack in the middle of a beer desert. “People are afraid of the dark here,” owner Kevin Rusk explains, “I can put huge beer like an Imperial IPA or a tripel on and they’ll give it a shot, but the same people won’t want to try a much milder beer like our oatmeal stout, simply because they feel they don’t like dark beer.” Nonetheless, Titanic is working hard to bring more adventurous beers to an otherwise poor market.

The market isn’t always the issue, at least in the south Florida sense. The Pacific Northwest loves beer like few other parts of the world. The older brewers in the region have gone on to regional scale and some of them have very wide distribution. But an area so madly in love with barley and hops has a lot of brewing talent and the result is a lot of really great breweries. The local market gives enough support that distribution is not necessary. Thus, beer lovers elsewhere have virtually no hope of ever trying many of these beers and the breweries remain more-or-less undiscovered. That some of the really good ones are in remote locations doesn’t help. Pelican, on the Oregon coast, does bottle some production, has the top-rated Foreign Stout on Ratebeer, and won Small Brewpub of the Year at the GABF in 2000 yet remains well off the radar screen due to a case of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”. A similar brewer is North Fork in rural Deming, WA, in the foothills of the rugged North Cascade mountains. It’s actually within an hour of a major metropolis but the border makes it a bit of a trek. The result, their excellent beers are only available to those willing to make the effort to go to the brewery and seek them out.

But you can be little-known even in a major beer city. In Seattle, one of the brewers I like is Baron. They make German beers in a city where the hop is king. They are on tap in most of the good beer bars, but the local population doesn’t always respond to German styles. I’ve got to give them credit, though, because they make a lot of really cool German styles. There are German-style brewers all over the world, but few are making Berliner weisse, roggenbier, weizenbock, rauchbier and kellerbier.

Another class of brewer that should be more widely recognized is the good chain brewer. Not all brewpub chains are alike, and not all branches within a chain are either. Though they tend to brew standard house beers, many are able to branch out and do their own thing. In any given McMenamin’s or Rock Bottom, there might be something tasty unique to that brewery in addition to the standards. One chain brewer that has made their mark but due to a combination of being a chain and being away from the urban core is still a little unknown is Iron Hill. They’ve done some highly-regarded beers at their branches, and the recent Lambic from their North Wales location (which brewer Larry Horwitz brought over with him from Manayunk) is one of the highest-rated American examples of the style, along with the Kriek from the Media location.

The moral of the story is that just because a beer doesn’t have a big name, or a brewer isn’t on the “most sought after” list doesn’t mean the beer isn’t every bit as good, or even better, than the products that the brewing superstars make. Some of these brewers will be superstars down the road, some of them are awesome right now, but none of them should be overlooked.


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