Beer Camp Across America

Jen Rizzo, July 16, 2014

Everyone loves a good Best-Of list, apparently, which is the only logical explanation for why there are so many of them. Year by year we hear about the best American beer (it’s probably Younger) or the best worldwide beer (it’s probably Westy), based on BeerAdvocate or RateBeer or Untappd or Twitter [or BeerGraphs - ed.] or whathaveyou.

I don’t mean to mark those lists as a bad thing - they’re often very data-driven examinations of craft beer, which is the very spirit that many of our articles here are written in. Most importantly, whether it’s to agree or criticize, they get people talking about beer. And since you’re here, you’re likely to agree that’s a good thing.

Years of Best-Of lists have created a chicken-and-egg situation with cult beers: Are you really drinking the best DIPA in the world, or is that just confirmation bias, satisfaction in acquiring a rare beer, and a great beer all at the same time? Does that take away from what “best” means?

Cult beers are a favorite topic among beer folk because it’s something we all have in common. A can of Heady Topper comes out at a bottle share and people clamor for a sip. Black Tuesday makes an appearance on a table after palates are already shot and we get excited for it anyway. A drinking game can be made out of every time a Triple IPA is compared to Younger. (Yes, Younger probably is more syrupy/hoppier/less boozy/whatever you think it is compared to last year. Yes, those people waiting in line are crazy. Yes, people across the country envy you for even having the opportunity to have this conversation.)

The cult of beer comes from a wonderful place: people who have had great beer and love it want to try more and more of it. There are a lot of beer drinkers who find one they like and stick to it, but someone who describes themselves as “into beer” probably wants to walk into a bar and order something they’ve never heard of.

Drinking local is popular for a lot of reasons. We love beer with a story. We love beer that says something about the place it was made. Hell, we just love drinking something new. An IPA drinker always wants a new IPA no matter how many great ones they’ve had. I’m on a personal quest for a ~5% ABV milk stout distributed on the west coast that I can drink for breakfast. A good friend of mine predictably orders any brown ale he’s never seen before. Beer drinkers, on the whole, are on a quest for new experiences.

The rise in popularity of tap takeovers points heavily toward beer drinkers wanting variety, and also hints at a desire to want to experience a brewery. If you try something from a brewery because it’s a style you gravitate toward and you really enjoy it, your next move might be to try another beer from the same brewery. Sampler packs are the at-home version of the latter. It’s an opportunity to provide you with a little tour of the brewery and what they’re up to. It keeps their beer in front of you no matter your current mood.

Packaging concerns often make it difficult for a small brewery to share their beer this way, but larger craft breweries have been taking advantage of this opportunity for years. Boulevard and Sam Adams offer mixed samplers year-round, and Sam Adams even brews an annual sampler for their LongShot contest, where homebrewers are invited to collaboratively brew and distribute their beer nationwide. The LongShot series has long been a favorite of mine, and Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America has a similar appeal.

What Sierra is doing with Beer Camp, however, is wildly more exciting for the industry as a whole.

To understand exactly how important Beer Camp is requires a little bit of an introduction to the three-tier distribution system. The Wikipedia article is well-written and direct; my current favorite article on it was written by Mike Reis for Serious Eats earlier this year. In the United States, by the time a beer reaches you, it’s touched three separate sets of hands: the brewery that made it sells it to a distributor, and that distributor sells it to wherever you purchased it from. The laws vary from state to state and occasionally there’s some overlap between roles, but unless you’re drinking it at the source (and occasionally even if you are), chances are that beer went through a couple of steps to get to you.

The basic answer to “Why can’t I get [desired beer] in [desired location]” is two-fold: one, distribution is really tricky, and two, making enough beer to justify the cost of moving a lot of it across the country is even trickier. Things become cheaper by unit in bulk. Shipping a little bit of beer comes at a much higher percentage per bottle than shipping a lot of beer. Finding the right partner to trust with your business in a location across the country and signing a contract is a big, scary thing. Maintaining a balance with distribution is a significant factor in a brewery’s ability to expand - and that’s assuming the brewery wants to grow at all. It’s hard for craft breweries to meet you if they don’t have the resources.

Sierra Nevada is a huge brewery. The second largest craft brewery in the country by sales volume (and seventh largest overall), according to the 2013 report from The Brewers Association. They brew a tremendous amount of beer. And most importantly: they have the resources to put 12-packs of that beer in every state across the country. In an industry that’s experiencing rapid growth, where competition could easily be expected, Sierra Nevada is using their size and their reach to introduce beer drinkers to breweries they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access (and vice versa). This isn’t cult beer. This is, to quote Sierra themselves, the largest craft beer celebration in history.

Flowery language aside, let’s check some numbers. Sierra invited brewers from twelve different breweries to participate: Allagash, Asheville Brewers Alliance, Ballast Point, Bell’s, Cigar City, Firestone Walker, New Glarus, Ninkasi, Oskar Blues, Russian River, Three Floyds and Victory. Thanks to Sierra’s distribution network across the country, beer drinkers in every state will have an opportunity to try the collaboration brews from each of them in a mixed 12-pack.

Next to Sierra Nevada, the most accessible brewery is Oskar Blues, with distribution to 34 states, followed by Victory at 33, Ballast Point at 22, and Bell’s/Firestone Walker at 20. On the other side of the list. as many a beer fan across the country will tell you, this is your one outside-of-Wisconsin shot at New Glarus.

If you wanted to try a beer from each of the twelve breweries, the closest you could come would be drinking eight of them in the great state of Pennsylvania. You’d have to look elsewhere for Asheville, New Glarus, Ninkasi or Three Floyds. And heavy is the head that wears the crown, Pennsylvanians: the residents of Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota all hate you, thanks to being able to otherwise access zero of the twelve participating breweries.

(Quick notes on the data above: Each brewery’s numbers come from Seek A Brew, and are compiled in this spreadsheet. There is no distinction made for markets with limited or regional distribution - e.g. breweries who distribute in Northern vs. Southern California. The Asheville Brewers’ Alliance was counted as only distributing to North Carolina, as their name represents 22 separate breweries. A quick Untappd search shows that they’ve brewed collaboration beers before, but none of them appear to have been distributed outside of North Carolina and are not brewed regularly.)

Oh, and the beers? They’re great. That’s the most exciting part. They’re not only great, but they’re wonderful examples of the best pieces of each brewery.

These are beers that tell a story of why these brewers were invited to collaborate with Sierra. I’ve had the pleasure of going to Cigar City twice and have enjoyed a number of their beers in Tampa. The Tropical Maibock is exactly the style of beer I love from them: sweet without cloying, incredibly fruit-forward, appropriately boozy at 7.7% ABV without being too hot. I’ve been a fan of Ninkasi Oatis (particularly the vanilla one) since they first started distributing to Northern California, and “coffee milk stout” is my personal “cellar door”, so it’s no surprise to me that I loved their Double Latte. Bell’s Maillard’s Odyssey (get it?) might come as a surprise to people who have only had Oberon and Two Hearted, but is a beautifully caramelly representation of their darker offerings. The biggest excitement for me was Tater Ridge, Beer Camp’s Scottish Ale. This was my first exposure to any Asheville beers, and if it’s indicative of the 22 breweries who participate in the Brewer’s Alliance, I sincerely hope this isn’t my only exposure to them. Ballast Point, the start of my Lunch Sculpin habit, knocked it out of the park with an IPL that’s so drinkable at 8.5%, I’m actually grateful it isn’t available year round.

Competition is tricky. The tech world is secretive because technology is ever-evolving and the fear that someone might beat you to the punch keeps you from sharing the research and work you’re developing. Writing is secretive because the second-published article isn’t nearly as important as the first.

The beer industry is growing at an impressive clip, and it’d be easy to close your doors and keep secrets. The beer industry is one of the few where someone consuming a product from one of your competitors is probably going to help you in the end. Someone who drinks a beer and enjoys it might become a beer drinker. If your fellow brewers make great beer, they’ll fall in love with beer, and one day they’ll try yours. They’ll share beers with their friends. The market share for craft beer is exploding at an incredible rate, but it’s still a small chunk of the overall pie. Beer drinkers recruit new beer drinkers. Everyone’s success can contribute to everyone else’s.

So here’s a giant cheers to Sierra. On behalf of beer drinkers, thanks for giving us the chance to try things we couldn’t try before. On behalf of the beer industry, thanks for using your well-achieved resources to help out the littler guys. Attend a tap takeover, attend a festival, buy a 12-pack. Let’s learn stuff and have fun.