Monday, December 10, 2007

The Bane of Better Beer

As an unofficial charter of Pacific Brew News I say that I am about 'promoting' craft beer, which is one reason you'll not find poor reviews on this site or our podcast (for the most part). However, there is a subject I've been trying to ignore for far too long now, something I just didn't know how to approach.

The Turnkey Brewpub is a concept that is taking off here in Northern California. In fact, here in my home city of Roseville there are at least three such operations: Main Street Brewing; Owl Club and La Provence. These are a varied mix of establishments, ranging from high-end dining to the dirtiest bar in town. They've all installed 'micro breweries' in the last five years or so and each of them makes the most god-awful excuses for beer you'd imagine. Sadly, a couple places seem to attract large audiences of misguided and misinformed beer enthusiasts. I have so much distaste for these establishments, even though two of them serve otherwise good beers on tap. I'd love to rail on these owners a bit, and perhaps I will, but my harshest views are reserved for those selling this crap.

To begin, let's look at the sales pitch:
  • No over-priced brewpub system
  • No large floorspace needed
  • No grain storage or grinding
  • No spent grains to get rid of
  • And Most Important-No Brewmaster!
    Just Real Profits For Your brewpub
No over-priced brewpub system... that's rich! These cheap-o uni-tanks only run you 36-82k, depending one how cheap you care to be. Of course, if you use their ingredients and their methods, you can make and serve beer that only costs you 30 cents a pint!

Does this list piss you off as much as it does me? No spent grains to get rid of... how nice, I wonder if Vinnie at Russian River knows of this? Oh, wait, no Brewmaster either... we'll keep that a secret from him for today at least. Just real profits... without the hassle and fuss of actually having to brew beer at your new brewery.

I've dubbed these systems "dump and stir", based on the fact the only thing you need to do is open the bucket-o-powder, dump it in the magic beer maker and let is sit for five days. After this time you too can dupe your customers with cheap beer with good profit margins. I hate these. If I see them in a bar, my stomach turns. I wish I could round every last one of them up and throw them off the Bay Bridge. But, sadly, it appears they're here to stay and the only thing I can do is bitch and bellyache.


It doesn't take a math wiz to figure out why these systems are popping up all over Northern California, they're going for a 'brewery' license that allows restaurant owners to sell beer, wine AND spirits for far less money than the traditional liquor licenses we know well. I've tried to find the exact license for this online, but haven't had any luck. However, I've talked with owners for two facilities that have confirmed the installation of these systems was directly linked to a license that would allow them to bring in hard alcohol. The tanks take up nominal space and require absolutely no background with the process of brewing. Essentially, if you can make Kool-Aid you can make 'beer' on these monstrosities.

Somehow all this seems appealing to those who are out to make a buck, damn the fact that they're back-handing the world of true micro-brewers that work and sweat their asses off to make a real beer with real flavor.


I've been to these places too many times, seen young beer drinkers get their first 'craft beer' for two bucks and immediately long for the Coors they gave up for this. It embarrasses me to hear about a new 'craft brewer' in my city from eager and naive drinkers who are mainly happy a craft beer is the same price (often cheaper) than their favorite macro-beer. It embarrasses me more when I hear from the barkeeps how the place makes their own beer and that they can make all types of beer - "light and dark".

If you've not had the pleasure of sampling one of these beers, I can tell you they all pretty much taste of green apples, have no body and nothing going on for them. One may be yellow and the next a darker shade of yellow (I've yet to see one that I'd actually call brown). I have been asked to look at a couple of these to see how I can improve the products, and without an actual ability to boil water or (often) control the fermentation temperatures, the folks are just SOL.

Of course, you and I both know the deal here and we can get angry together at what we see, but what about those whose only beer knowledge comes from a TV ad? What about the patrons who we all know, those we frequently encourage to just try a craft beer? You think their first impression of the industry and beers we love will be glowing, or even better than shitty? I don't, and I can't really convey how that makes me feel.


I don't have the answer. I fear any complaints to the state would only trigger more dumbass inspections or retooling of the permit process - and that isn't good for anyone. I don't begrudge anyone the right to make a buck, after all, but where is the line in all this from an ethics perspective? I assume the owners know they're making crap (and selling crap), so perhaps ethics isn't an issue they'll care too much about. I don't have an answer, so I guess I've only got complaints. Sorry, sort of hate to be that way.

If you're considering opening a joint, or know someone who is, please steer clear of this practice. About the only place I could appreciate this system would be Taco Bell, or maybe KFC. To seriously believe you're buying a brewery with this is nothing short of absurd.