CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The economy is barely breathing for most businesses, providing just enough revenue to keep the doors open. So who would have thought that the burgeoning American craft beer industry -- with more than 1,600 small, agile breweries -- would not only weather the economic storm, but grow nearly 10 percent year after year? This is America's craft beer reality.
By all measure, Charleston (and West Virginia as a whole) is a very small, infinitesimal market for the craft beer segment. Still, there is barely enough cooler space at Kroger for one more craft brand. Sure, they could pull all of the yellow macro-swill from the shelves to make room for yet another IPA, but we all know that won't happen.
So how does a craft brewer survive in this crowded segment of the beer market? The first step is to get you to try their beer. This is a daunting task considering all of the brands and cool labels and names.
Unlike wine, West Virginia law prohibits beer tastings, which are often used in other states to introduce the wide variety of craft beer to the consumer.
The next important step is to give you something to come back for. If they can convert you from "beer-curious" to "devoted customer," they have won a huge battle in the fight for market share.
I have noticed that brewers, especially the established craft brands, have really stepped up their game. Breweries like Harpoon and Sierra Nevada were starting to lose a bit of relevance in the ever-changing and often gimmicky craft-beer world.
What did Sierra do? They started the "fresh-hopped" movement, delivering awesome, floral and hoppy brews right out of the bottle. Harpoon introduced its 100 Barrel Series of very-small-batch specialty beers, reviving legendary classic styles like Oyster Stout (yes, it's brewed with real oysters and is delicious). Samuel Adams rolled out the Imperial Series, featuring big and bold beers worthy of cellaring, in many cases.
Here are a few "relevant" beers to try:
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: Recently labeled as "Fresh Hopped," Sierra claims the beer has always been so. Sierra uses the complexity of hops and malt as the centerpiece of interest versus the typical overspiced holiday and Christmas beer offered up by many.
Harpoon Belgian Pale Ale: This bready and delicious beer was first brewed as a seasonal. Harpoon apparently heard the sighs of all who tasted this brew and added it to its standard lineup.
Harpoon Oak Aged Dunkel: This is the latest release of the Harpoon 100 Barrel Series. I have not gotten my hands on this one yet, and I will fight you for the last bottle if put in that situation. I don't mind recommending that you try a beer that I haven't. Beer geeks need a sense of adventure!
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.