June 10, 2013

Beer Ecology | More than Buildings, People and Beer

This week, I found a concept that helped me look at  the growth, health and diversity of our beer community and beer culture. It's also revelatory in how we might fill in the gaps and deal with the lack of richness and consistency in the experiences we have here in Phoenix.

Our urban landscape closely maps to the highs and lows of our beer scene. If I could drive one point home it would be on how the parking lot real estate complex has stifled the growth of new breweries (and bars, restaurants and shops) in downtown Phoenix. You can catch up on what I've written here--And An Urbanist Shall Lead Us.

Once again, Taz Looman's blog, Blooming Rock is the source of my personal revelation. This time the writer is a guest, Kirby Hoyt. In Why We Need to Think About Infrastructure as More Than Just Roads and Bridges, Hoyt talks about the concept of ecology, not in the biological or environmentalist movement sense, but anthropological:
The term ecology simply means the relationship of organisms to each other and their surroundings. When thinking of landscape as infrastructure, one should emulate the conditions of the natural environment in a conspicuously designed manner. The diversity of the landscape should meet those of the natural environment, if possible. At the very least, landscape as infrastructure should contain overlapping programs to ensure a diverse ecology.
So instead of just talking about the role of raised buildings and how public transportation fails Phoenicians for beer drinkers, we need to take a more holistic approach on all things beer.

Each of these could take up post on its own, but here are my thoughts:
  • While I think that it's important to save the buildings that we still have, there are numerous empty strip malls. Many are either too big or too small. Using these buildings could require some creativity, partnerships with other businesses and flexible landlords. We also need to encourage partnerships with architects and urban planners.
  • Most of our Arizona beer drinking places have really failed to take full advantage of our outdoor drinking spaces. This has much to do with minimum parking requirements and working with local permitting agents. A success story is OHSO taking advantage of its northern exposure creating a dog-friendly outdoor space. Natural shade and trees are an integral part of the classic biergarten. We could do better here.
  • Beer has gone from a seasonal and local enterprise to a model where any style from any city can be created anytime. Might it be to time to look at beer styles that better reflect our climate? Might it be time to re-examine the current beer market? This may come as a surprise to some craft beer enthusiasts, but compared to the rest of the country, Arizona is not pulling its craft beer weight. I've heard from a few insiders that our Symphony/IRI numbers trail other states by an embarrassingly wide margin. Arizona has far too many macro beer drinkers and there are too few craft beer breweries tapping the large Hispanic market. After all, as Alworth alludes, "People Know Less About Beer Than You Think". In Arizona, the divide seems Grand Canyon-esque. The notion of making a popular approachable beer here is essential and would take advantage of a local conditions. One can't help but think of New Glarus' top selling adjunct lager that outsells Miller in its own backyard.
  • In Arizona, we seem to equate auto transportation dollars with notions of freedom and independance and yet I can think of nothing more freeing and independent than knowing that I can hop on a bus or light rail without fear of a DUI. The opportunities in which public transportation works in conjunction with a craft beer lifestyle are essentially nil. These types of transportation expenditures are generally regarded as wasteful or give-aways. In the meantime, in 2012 there were 27,000 DUI arrests. Anecdotally, a good number of those were some of my craft beer friends. It's not uncommon to hear about 100 mile commutes in the name of "supporting" craft beer. This is not a sustainable strategy.
What are your thoughts on beer ecology?


  1. This is a response related to everything you said generally but nothing specifically, but something I have been thinking about for awhile which applies. I have only lived or spent significant time in one major American Beer City (Austin), but something that strikes me about the craft beer bar scene here is its lack of permanence. Basically, when I walk into a bar I ask myself: Is this a place which, if I lived within walking (or in Phoenix, let's say, short driving) distance, would serve as my local bar? By local bar, I mean nothing having to do with its craft beer selection, or its beer selection at all. I would drink Evan Williams on the rocks all night over going to Whole Foods, OHSO, Angels Trumpet, or wherever if it was the kind of place where I had strong social connections to the people there.

    Now, this isn't to say that none of these places have this for some people. James at Whole Foods, of course, is about the most gracious person you can imagine, but his bar is kind of surreal--it's only for beer nerds. The point being, the focus should be more on developing great places to drink which happen to have a great craft beer selection rather than places with a great beer selection which aren't really that fun to have a beer at. Boulders on Broadway and Yucca Taproom are two places I've been that I think approach this distinction (maybe it's a Tempe thing).

  2. But this is something that I've been thinking about and really crystallized with the Alworth post you mentioned. I think about styles and history and nitrogen and whether they used hop extract in this beer or whatever because that's related to my job (and related to why I'm posting this anonymously). But it's an idea I've written about before to you: For craft beer to have permanence it needs to be something that's more in the background. Beer geekery is frankly, exhausting. I don't like spending my nights and weekends drinking three or four different beers that I'll never get to try again, or sampling 15 to 20. Maybe I do sometimes, but the permanence of a beer, or the place to drink beer, is acquired when you develop memories related to what happened when you drank it. It just happens that I believe independently owned, talented, local, and creative breweries should be the ones these memories are built around.

    How will this occur in Phoenix? I'm not sure. I live near some places with good selections and an obvious commitment to good beer which I think qualify as a "local," or a "third place," as you discussed awhile back. Alworth writes that the question he addresses would "keep the brewer up at night." I think you could probably say brewer and owner and salesperson though. The craft beer "fad" is going to fade, and so will many bars and breweries. People drinking beer and going to bars is not a fad. That's not to say craft beer and breweries cannot be successful in the long-term, but that success will be wholly unrelated to whatever Stone keg is getting tapped at whatever beer bar next Wednesday night.

    I'm not really sure how I addressed the problem of Phoenix specifically, but I guess I'll put it this way. I think the driving/DUI issue is the major limiting factor here, with climate second (it's great being outside 7 months, and awful for five). These two things drive outsiders, myself definitely included, crazy. The climate issue isn't resolvable, and the driving thing can be improved, but will always be something of an issue. What the beer community can do and can change is the way we address what we'll call the "five-minute issue" (named after the idea that most people don't think about their beer for more than five minutes). Spend less money on gas to get to the places with cool beers on tap and less money hunting bottle shops for whatever beer had 10 cases allocated to the entire state and start drinking Kiltlifter or Devil's or whatever right alongside the BMC taps at the bar two minutes from wherever you live (which is probably, of course, in a strip mall). Admittedly, some places like this really suck and don't deserve to stay in business. But I think having two or three beers and enjoying them but not feeling like you need to have them right now or have that Imperial IPA which is only available right here and right now will help with the DUI thing. The laws here are very strict, but maybe if the act of simply having a good beer weren't such a big deal, people would put themselves at less risk in order to do so.

  3. I'd really like to thank you, anonymous, for taking the time to respond. I write this blog for a number of reasons, but the ability to share a discussion like this is immensely rewarding. You've clearly given this some thought. You, as did I, reached a point where there are no clear answers but plenty of fuzzy questions.

    I am currently in the last days of being a Phoenician and will soon be moving to Tempe to go to the "third places" in my new neighborhood. I have great hope for Phoenix, but no illusions that I can change it on my own. We see eye-to-eye on the fact that I'd sometimes rather sit at Casey Moores with a Kilt then go up the street to Taste of Tops (which is among my favorite places) for no other reason than it's often the right place at the right time.

    I'm intrigued by the 5 minute concept. I'm sure its related to my post on 2 ounce culture, Stan's notion of 2 pints are better than one (http://appellationbeer.com/new-beer-rule-3-2-pints-are-better-than-one/) I imagine we could discuss that over a beer.

    1. Yes. I'm actually moving to Tempe myself in a few weeks. Maybe instead of a beer it could be happy hour margaritas on Mill to, you know, fit in with the crowd.

      I also went to Fate for the first time yesterday. Besides the beer being good (which I expected), its interior was designed tastefully and in a way that belied its generic strip mall exterior. The staff and vibe made it a place that I would want to go back to as a place to drink beer. I won't go there often, because it's so far away, but perhaps we could invert that thinking. Because Phoenix is so large, there's no reason that 10 more Fate's could not spring up. CenPho has SunUp, and AZ Wilderness is planning on a model that seems very similar to what Fate does (constantly rotating styles and taps). I haven't been to Desert Eagle (because it's, you know, far away). North Mountain is also now open too, and they as well have made the interior visually interesting relative to the outdoor surroundings, along with a small but pleasant patio.

      I don't know what ambitions the respective owners of these places have towards ultimately dabbling in production, and I don't know what their bottom lines look like at the moment. But assuming even half these places succeed at the small, rotating-tap, pub-only model (I think the West Valley start-ups are doing something similar), in a very short time I think you could see some interesting micro beer-scenes develop. What works in Scottsdale may not work in Peoria and that may not work in Tempe. With a change of perspective, these limitations have the potential to create a beer scene of remarkable diversity.

      The key here though is that the beer needs to be good. That doesn't mean anything needs to be barrel-aged, or that they have to have four IPA's on at all times, but that the beer needs to be brewed at a professional quality. Even the five-minute drinkers know a good beer from a bad one, and I'll have three Miller High Life's before I take a second look at your thin, buttery pilsner.

  4. To Anonymous. With most of your points I agree, however, there are always circumstances that make for different situations and dictate the feel or concept of a bar. Example: I unfortunately do not have a license to sell spirits. While you are correct that we are very craft centric for many reasons, one is that we are in the back of a large market place that as you stated does indeed make for a surreal situation. Rob Fulmer himself has told me on more than one occasion that he loves what I do but doesn't himself want to drink in a grocery store. Point? My circumstances dictate that my offerings be a little off the beaten path because it is truly difficult to convince the everyday drinker that what we are doing is comfortable. I do very much appreciate and agree with many of your points, but we work with what we got! Cheers!

  5. Anonymous - sounds like it's high time to start your own bar up and show us how it's done. Feel free to post an address when you secure that perfect location. Until then, I'll be over here getting exhausted by exposing my tastebuds to something I make damned sure I WILL have again, if I like it enough.

  6. Missed opportunity for a good Talking Heads pun. Otherwise an excellent post (and comments).

    Tempe? Por Que?


    Oh, and 1:45 Anon - I recommend lowering the ABV a bit. Dude had a thoughtful post; no need to roll up the sleeves.

    1. Maher,

      I had the heads in mind, but I wanted a graphic that looked like the cover with beer bottles and buildings or maybe beer bottles reflected in the window grid of a building.

      As for Tempe, it's two miles from 3 breweries and dozens of bars and restaurants that I go to. I'd like to get more biking and walking into my routine.

    2. Rob -

      To avoid any sleepless nights, know that I favor all the listed reasons for your relocation!
      Godspeed on the move.

      Not my favorite Heads album - nor my least favorite(!), but respect is due for any project involving Eno (the Kevin Bacon of the music universe).


  7. I think the take away from this is, when is James going to open his own bar? Preferably in the south east valley. But that's just because I'm selfish.

    - JVJ