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CBW Book Club Recap: The Audacity of Hops

Last Wednesday, eight people gathered on the second floor of Mister Goodbar to talk about Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops.

It was possibly the most ambitious (that’s foreshadowing right there, that is) event I had planned: sure, you could say Risk was more of a stretch, but at its heart I was asking people to show up, drink beer and roll a few dice. Here people needed to read a 343 page book! That took dedication as well as a material investment.

Besides: I didn’t know how to run a book club! Most of the material I found online assumed we were reading fiction and spent most of their time giving advice on the snacks to offer. We had snacks: it’s called beer.

My worries were quickly assuaged as the conversation naturally picked up and guided itself. There was no need for the series of English class inspired questions written in my notebook, because — as I am fond of saying — beer lovers are passionate and friendly, and so everyone had quite a lot they wanted to talk about.

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It helped that most or all of the book was new information to the vast majority of us. Ethan knew most of it, I believe, but that’s because he’s Ethan. My knowledge of it was Seinfeldian: “Anchor, New Albion, yadda yadda yadda, Stone and Dogfish Head and here we are.” I honestly had no idea about the IPO boom in the mid 90s or the “shakeout” a few years later.

This may have been because most of the people in attendance were roughly my age: late 20s to mid 30s. Hardly any of us were old enough to drink when all of that was going down, so why would we know about it?

We had a bit of a discussion about bubbles: Phil said that now seemed like the first time in craft beer’s history that breweries were “safe.” This is due in large part to there being an informed audience, I think: much of New Albion’s problem seemed to be that they were selling to a market that had no interest in the product, and in fact was genuinely confused about what it even was. People know beer now. They may drink Blue or Bud Light, but if you say you like pale ales and porters they at least know what you’re talking about. A few people were hesitant to declare us immune from further shakeouts without the benefit of hindsight, but it does seem much less risky now than in the 1970s.

Much of the book was absolutely fascinating to me because it was clear advice on things you can do, or not do, to absolutely doom your brewery. In particular, the story of Catamount was instructional: they expanded without having a clear plan of who they would sell all this new beer to. As an owner of a brewery currently considering expansion options, we’ll be sure to not make that mistake. (even if we are on the whole a bunch of pseudo-hippies who mistrust and dislike marketing)

The-Audacity-of-HopsI quite enjoyed Jon’s summary of the contract brewer debate (a topic I was bemused to see has been around for decades). I’m an advocate of the “if it ends in good beer, I’m for it” camp: brewers with physical locations talking trash about contract brewers has always smacked of jealousy to me. “You didn’t have to go through the hardships I did! That’s not fair!”

But he summed it up well: it’s not about contract vs physical breweries: it’s about marketers vs brewers.

Obviously, you can’t have all marketing and no beer: if your beer sucks then no one will buy it, marketing or not. And to a certain extent you can have beer with no marketing: see us in our first year for that (well, except that you could rightly see this blog and our social media presence as marketing), but in general that’s a great way to not make any money. So most breweries do some combination of both.

But it’s the real focus that matters. At the heart of it, are you a brewer or a marketer? (this is of course a subjective concern and at the end of the day I still consider the quality of the product produced to be the final arbiter) For an example of this, look at the Red Bell Brewing Company: the initial description in the book, of a series of sexist billboard ads, skeeved me out. Then later they were described as actually having good beer and I felt bad for judging them harshly. In true Audacity fashion, of course, two pages later they were closed, in part due to mediocre beer.

As the night went on we naturally strayed from the topic. Phil, Scott and I started talking about old Nintendo games. We all packed up and went downstairs to have another pint or two.

It was a wonderful time with wonderful people, and the conversation doesn’t have to be over: if you couldn’t make it, or have more to say now, we can continue discussing it here, on the Facebook event page, wherever strikes your fancy!

I can’t wait to do it again: round two is coming May 21st, as we read Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew. I hope to see you there!