You Can Learn a Lot at a Good Beer Shoppe

Mass Ave in North Cambridge is a haven for hipsters, young professionals, artists, students, dog walkers, college profs with young families…you get the idea.  The shopping is an eclectic mix of chocolatiers, “vintage modern” furniture (whatever that is), auto repair shops, vacant store fronts, and a wide range of restaurants and take-out joints.  One of the top homebrew stores is found here, Modern Homebrew Emporium, but that’s a tale for another day.

Along this quirky mile north of Porter Square is the popular Pemberton Farms, pictured above.  At first glance this looks nothing like a premium bottle shop, nor at second or third glance for that matter.  But beyond the hanging baskets and bags of mulch it is something of a gourmet grocery store, and beyond the Manchego cheese and free range foie gras is a beer department that will blow your mind.

The stock is a mix of offerings from all sorts of breweries large and small, with Massachusetts well represented as well as some popular/obscure/pricey stuff from some boutique New York City breweries.  Unexpected gems from all over; a small but impressive cadre of Belgians among them.   Local highlights include Night Shift and Cambridge Brewing Company; Slumbrew and Aeronaut are also well stocked.  My careful study even revealed a few cases from modest Banded Horn in Kennebunk, Maine.   Moving further afield, good offerings from Ohio, Kentucky, Colorado, California, Washington, Michigan, Toronto…even a few varieties from Alaska.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

The Lessons Learned

Now to the point of all this time invested.  Spend an hour in a specialty beer shoppe and you’ll learn a lot about what kind of beer is out there, and what kind of beer people buy.  And especially what they don’t buy.

Lesson One:  Jammy, hazy, New England style IPAs are the new pumpkin beer.

You know what I mean…those translucent, orange beers that smell like a fruit cup, taste like  a fruit juice made from grains, and have virtually zero bitterness compared to the traditional IPA style.  Everybody loves ’em, and now everybody is making ’em. Too much, too many.  Brewers learned this lesson in 2015:  Customers can only drink so much pumpkin beer…

Hear me out on this.

The offerings of New England style IPAs are becoming an overabundance of the same thing.   Scanning the shelves in Cambridge, the style was ubiquitous.  Breweries here, there, and everywhere, with a bunch I never heard of in between.

So a little test was in order.  I collected $12 (and up) 4-pack 16 ounce can offerings from three breweries, all promising juicy New England hop monstrosities.

First up, something from Peak Organic simply called “Juice.”  Promising to be “wicked dry hopped,” at least they got the lingo right.  The beer?  Meh.  Big fruit juicy Mosaic or Citra something or other with virtually no bitterness to speak of.

Next, Slumbrew’s (that’s Somerville Brewing Company) “Harebrained,” billed as a “hoppy white IPA  with Mosaic.”  Slightly different from Peak’s, but in the scheme of things, not by much.

Third, Queequeg’s Revenge New England IPA, this from Down the Road.  With a 7% ABV this promised to deliver more than the previous two, but aside from a stronger buzz, it didn’t really.

How much of this can the consumer stand?  It reminds of the days in the 1980s when consumers began to catch on to wine varietals.    Booze was going out of style, drunk driving laws finally caught up to the necessary reality, and consumers turned to higher-end wine. (Most beer was marginal at best in those days.)   Problem was the palate wasn’t ready for monster zins and dried out cabs, so everybody went for Chardonnay — kind of an entry point for wine drinking.  Eventually they grew up and moved on.

So it will be with these juicy style New England IPAs.  Well, I expect so.  We shall see.  And I expect the day will come when the juicy IPAs will go unsold, just like pallets of pumpkin beer back in 2015.  Problem is the pumpkin beer can sit for a few months and be ok — IPAs, not so much.

Which brings me to my next observation:  Distribution of all this stuff is going to bite these micro-breweries right in the butt.

Lesson Two:  Distribution — Brewers should be careful what they wish for

Now you’re probably thinking that’s because they have a hard time getting any distribution.  No, that would be better.  Problem  is they have distribution where they shouldn’t, and unfamiliar consumers leave their offerings to rot.

Shelf turds, dust catchers, call ’em what you want — people have too many choices now, and although Banded Horn mentioned above may be doing great business in Southern Maine, 95% of the population of Cambridge Massachusetts has never tried it, never heard of it, and they ain’t gonna spend $14 on an unknown four pack when they can get Lord Hobo Boomsauce for the same money, knowing exactly what level of quality they’re gonna get.

Another example I saw here was Vermont’s incredible Foley Brothers.  With bomber bottles priced at $13 and Night Shift at the same money, The Foley stuff was depressingly dusty, age uncertain.  I love Foley and wanted to buy it, but…I held back my tears and moved on.

Point is that these awesome and excellent brews don’t belong in this market, and I doubt the breweries have any control over where their stuff goes.  They’re probably thrilled to have it go out in wide distro.  Problem is when it all gets returned, or even worse, when people buy two year old bottles and gag on it.

These breweries could take a lesson from Shaun Hill here.