16 Mar 2014

A View from the Notch


Chris Lohring is the owner and Brew Master of Notch, a Boston based brewing company specialised in Session beers. I met him and his wife almost two years ago when the came to Prague and we spent a glorious afternoon at Únětické Pivovar drinking several litres of Desítka.

He mentioned not long ago that he had decided to leave the Brewers Association and I was curious about why, and also wanted to ask him a few more questions, and he has some quite interesting things to say.

How long was Notch a member of the BA?
Two years I believe, I opted out in 2013. With my previous brewery Tremont, I had been a member as well, both pre and post-merger (Association of Brewers and Brewers Association of America).

How did the BA change during those years?
The real changes came after the merger, at least that from my point of view.  Very small brewers were now in the same organization as some very large brewers. We saw how that played out with the craft beer “definition” change. Over the years I saw the BA focusing more on issues concerning their largest members, and that resulted in decisions that benefited them the most.

What was the thing that made you say "fuck it", the last straw?
The definition changes. If there really is a benefit in defining the beers we make, let's be honest with the intent. There was this driving need for million barrel brewers to be perceived as small for marketing reasons, and ultimately that was not a reasonable decision.

Also, the desire to remove the older regional brewers from the craft definition through an ingredient specification was misguided. (This has since been corrected.) The use of corn, or rice, was deemed “non-traditional” and not craft. That really got under my skin, to the point I brewed a pale lager made with heritage corn from a local farm just to show it can have a positive, flavorful impact on a beer.

As “innovative” craft brewers we are heralded for using any ingredient under the sun but corn and rice are excluded from that definition? The myths built around adjuncts are long and mostly inaccurate. I don't have space for a corn rant here, but I wrote about it on the Notch website.

I assume it wasn't the only one, what were the other factors that eventually made to quit the BA?
Mostly that I'm a small brewer who watches every penny and the yearly dues I paid could be best spent elsewhere. It really just came down to that – was I getting value for my money, and I decided that I wasn't. It's not a “statement” or a message but a financial decision. I thought buying coasters for my draft accounts would be a better use of that cash.

And the style guidelines, I'm not a style freak, but they do help inform consumers. One Czech style (!) and a session beer “style” with an ABV range of 4.0 to 5.1%. A lower limit on session beer! I wrote the BA regarding the Session Beer definition and was ignored. In what mature beer producing country would 5.1% be considered session beer, or have a lower limit of 4.0%?

The BA is looked to for guidance and information from the press, consumers, and industry, and they are communicating that a session beer is 5.1% ABV? That is the equivalent ABV as a shot of bourbon or a 5oz glass of 12% ABV wine. Is that what we want to be communicating?

(No need to give names) Do you know of any other breweries that have recently left the BA or are seriously considering doing so?
I'm sure they are out there, but I haven't spoken to anyone about it. I tend to keep my head down and focus on my business, and other than being on the board of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, I'm not out speaking to many brewers outside my area. I haven't even told anyone I left until now. Again, it's not really a message I'm making, just a decision based on value and a disagreement of the BA's direction.

The other day the BA announced a change in the definition of craft beer, according to which it is now kosher to brew with adjuncts like corn. What are your feelings about it?
I think their reputation was taking a hit, so maybe they are listening? But it really looks like they have a shifting agenda based on what provides the best outcome for their board and larger members. I may be wrong on all of this, but the ever changing definition tells me otherwise. There is still some jockeying for position, as a publicly traded brewery is craft, yet a brewery of modest size that has 25% investment from AB is not. That makes little sense to me.

Andres Araya from 5 Rabbit gave an interview to Good Beer Hunting where, among other things, he speaks about the challenges of contract brewing. As a "brewery-less" brewer yourself, can you relate to what he says?
Every contract brewing arrangement is unique, so I don't think you can look at it monolithically like he does. And I mean that from both perspective of the host brewery (who owns the physical plant) and the tenant brewer (who uses another's facility).

I owned a production brewery and began brewing professionally 20 years ago, so maybe I come at it from a different view. My host breweries have been chosen because they give me absolute flexibility in ingredients and process, while allowing me to be hands on if I chose to be. For the most part I can use any yeast I want, any malt, and any hop. I'm old school and don't care for peppers, chocolate nibs, or fruit in my beer, but those options are available to me if I want. Corn too! Are there beers I cannot make? Yes, I'd love to put a Berliner Weisse in cans and sell them in 12 packs for $15, but I'm not bringing lactobacillus into a brewery anytime soon.

Also, my contract partners allow me to produce at scale. If I started a brewery on day one to launch Notch, it would not have been possible to offer my beer at a competitive price. This business is all about margin and scale. To put beer in 12 packs priced to the consumer at $15 and realize a gross margin that keeps the business afloat, you need SCALE. And that is exactly the package the session beer consumer wants - 12 pack cans. Yes, I could have grown into that volume with my own brewery, but finding investors to float a cash flow until break even for a session beer brewery in 2009 would have been futile. And I don't have a trust fund.

So for me, and this is certainly not for everyone, contract brewing was the only real viable path to introduce a session beer brand. And since I've been a brewer and had owned my own brewery for almost a decade, I'm not rushing to build a facility to “live the dream”. My goal is to make the absolute best beer I can and offer it at the best price possible, and my own brewery does not fit that goal right now. I will build another brewery eventually, but I will most likely always rely on contract partners for scale and competitive pricing.

I've seen recently quite a bit of criticism directed at breweries like Notch. Some of it appears to be fair - failure to disclose the place where the beer is actually made - but not all. How do you feel about it? Would you compare it with the negative campaign that in the 90s AB ran against Sam Adams?
I think some of the criticism directed to contract brewers is warranted, and some contract brewers only need to look at the mirror as to why. Many contract brewers hide or are not forthcoming with the place of production. If your office is in X and you brew in Y, telling your consumer it comes from X (or leading them in that direction) will ultimately come back to bite you. In the 90's we called these companies post office box breweries, and this practice ultimately hurt everyone because the brands were not being truthful. The consumer felt lied to, and all small brewers were tarnished, especially when AB came out swinging against Boston Beer. I hate to see current day contract brewers (and me in particular!) get dragged into this mess again.

The "gypsy" thing is contract brewing with a sexy new name, but honestly, I really don't know what gypsy brewing means. Just don't call me one.

I have one tenet at Notch that I follow (and my employees must follow) - tell the truth, always. I brew in 3 different breweries and have been without a true home base since day one. I live in Massachusetts, and for the first year I brewed all the beer in Maine (by me, with my own hands, in a brewery I worked in previously), and I called myself a Maine brewer because that was the truth. Fours years later, a small bit comes from Maine, most of my beers come from Massachusetts, but I have significant production in Connecticut too. When a consumer asks, where are you from? I list the locations, and sometimes they haven't trailed off and lost interest by the time I finish. It would be easier to say "in city X" where my post office box is located, but I refuse to do that. I respect the consumer and beer too much for a slight marketing advantage.


Thanks Chris, and hope to see you again soon for another session.

Na Zdraví!

3 comments:

  1. Great interview. I have been obsessed with Czech beer styles since my first visit to Prague in '91. I feel lucky to live in in MA so I can drink a variety of Czech beers, thanks to Chris. And any Notch beer on cask is a beautiful thing. The older I get, the more I want to end the day with a classic everyday beer. My cellar is full of high ABV bombers that I never get around to drinking. But a six pack of a session beer disappears quickly. Too quickly!

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  2. Great interview! I share Chris' sentiment about BA. The constant definition shifting cheapens the product and is akin to big beer corporate double speak.

    I've had The Mule (the corn lager) at the 2013 Beer Bloggers Conference and it was amazingly tasty. Chris poured for us and he seems like a legit, stand up guy.

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  3. Good interview. I've always felt that it was wrong to characterize corn (or even sugar) and other adjuncts as evil. How the finished product tastes is what really counts.

    As far as the definition changes resembling "big beer corporate doublespeak", the fact is that the craft beer/small brewer segment of the industry has been guilty of it's own doublespeak. Let's face it...the craft industry is not without it's own examples of bad beer!

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