Well, on Monday, you know LAST YEAR, we did a 2008 Year in Review. Well, today is 2009 and we're going to look at the year coming up. This will be the post that in December of 2009 we'll look back and go "HA! How could you have been so stupid!" But, we do it anyway because, well, we have to write about something.
Some things to look for from the Wisconsin and United States Brewing Industry.
1. The First "All-Wisconsin" Beer. It is coming. I don't know who will brew it - my guesses are either Lakefront or Central Waters, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Capital or New Glarus stick their necks out first. Basically, the groundwork has been laid for brewing-quality barley and the first of Wisconsin's hop fields are starting to turn out sufficient quantities. The scuttlebutt is that come September we may see an All-Wisconsin fresh hop beer made with Wisconsin malted barley, Wisconsin hops, and Wisconsin water.
2. Brewpub expansions and Brew-Tourism. Some small breweries are going to start putting in tasting rooms and some existing brewpubs are going to open more locations. Don't be surprised to see The Great Dane outside of Madison, or Water Street or Milwaukee Ale House opening up more locations. It's not a great market for this stuff, but with other brewpubs going under we may see the more established names going in and scooping up facilities and renovating them under their own name. Similarly, breweries and towns are starting to see more and more interest in tourism to the breweries - those that don't have tasting rooms will get them quickly, those that have them will start advertising them more. In this regard, hopefully the cities and state will help out with business development dollars (so generously available from the feds for spurring the economy).
2a. Microbrewing. Brewing is relatively easy to do in a simple way; beer is expensive to buy from a distributor. Restaurants, with a small system, could easily produce enough beer to supplement current liquor and beer needs. Moreover, as we saw last year with O'So Brewing in Plover, we may start to see other related companies open up a brewing component. For example, O'So is owned and run by the owner of a homebrew shop in Central Wisconsin. It's these kinds of periphery industries that may start to explore brewing in an extremely local way. Seattle, Washington has something like one brewpub for every 37,500 people - if this ratio held in Madison (pop: 223,389), we would have six brewpubs - we currently have 4 - the two Great Danes, JT Whitneys and Ale Asylum. If you were to include the Greater Madison Area, or Dane County if you prefer (pop: 463, 826), we could support up to 13 at the same ratio as Seattle - we currently have 7 total in Dane County (add one more Great Dane - the Fitchburg location - The Grumpy Troll, and Grey's Tied House - although one could question how much they actually brew out there). So, don't be surprised to see more brewpubs - or brewbars (bars that don't serve food in any meaningful way, but do brew their own beer) - in 2009.
2b. Contract Brewing. Many of the new beer brands will be contract brewed. For example, a restaurant could develop a recipe, have Point brew it for them and then ship it back, and sell it under a private label. This used to be done quite frequently, and I suspect we'll start seeing more of it again. Starting a new brewery can be very expensive, and it can be much more cost-effective to find excess capacity at an existing brewery and, excuse the pun, tap into it. Brewing entities like Furthermore Beer and Mikkeller (a Danish brewer who doesn't own a brewery, but contract brews some of the most sought after beers in the world) are showing that contract brewing doesn't have to be a dirty word. With the right supervision and quality control and recipe development, in other words, acting like you are running your own brewery, contract beer is no different from beer produced via a very large capital expenditure. These deals need to be partnerships, not simply "here, brew this for me." This isn't to say that there won't continue to be a lot of bad contract brewing. The fact is, recipes are developed by people who don't know what they are doing, contracts don't contain sufficient quality supervision requirements, and, unlike a brewery that can brew whenever they want, when a batch goes bad - you can't just dump the bad stuff. So, in many respects there needs to be an even higher importance placed on quality than even in a non-contract situation. We will talk much, much more about contract brewing in the coming weeks.
3. Expanded and Improved Beer Lists. Even the Wall Street Journal is calling beer the new wine. Mid-range and high-end restaurants are, hopefully, finally going to ditch Amstel Light (I still haven't figured out why 'fancy' restaurants all sell this crap) and Heineken (it's been interesting to watch Heineken move from a 'premium' brand to a 'club' brand) and move towards American (Wisconsin) crafts; three trends are driving this move: 1) greater knowledge from the consuming public about craft brands; 2) localization of food sources and the demand for locally produced food and beverages; 3) increased sophistication in the marketing of beer. With each of these trends, chefs (mostly cool people who all, when customers aren't looking, drink beer) are starting to realize, like the rest of us, that beer can bring a huge flavor palatte to the table.