Our special guest is Jess Baker, the editor-in-chief of CraftBeer.com. After 15 years in digital and broadcast journalism, she’s now bringing you stories about America’s small and independent breweries. She’s a runner, a die-hard Springsteen fan, and a new mom who is always scouting family-friendly breweries.
Host Ceslie Armstrong asks her about what is happening now in the growing craft beer industry; we get some stats and inside scoop on what individual brewers are doing to grow their businesses while contributing to the communities they serve. Jess Baker shares her favorite locations for “beercations” and also gives some insights into how various states are supporting the agribusiness side of brewing.
She shares her predictions for the industry and tells us why her editorial focus for CraftBeer.com is about the people in the industry including women, families, friends, and who communities.
The recurring segments in Grapes, Grains & Grub this episode include hospitality expert Robert Rodriguez‘s tips regarding seating in our “Front of House” segment; our host reveals “Ceslie’s Picks“ and our “Culinary Destination“ featured is Alpine, Texas.
AUDIO INTERVIEW EXCERPTS WITH INTERVIEWER CESLIE ARMSTRONG
Ceslie Armstrong: I am so thrilled about my guest today. She is Jess Baker and she is the editor-in-chief of CraftBeer.com. It is a website for beer lovers and it’s published by the brewers association. They’re the trade group that protects and promotes small and independent U.S. brewers. While the Brewers Association focus is supporting its members, CraftBeer.com focuses on telling the stories about those breweries to beer lovers. The BA is really a very cool organization and it’s based in Boulder, Colorado. After 15 years in digital and broadcast journalism, Jess Baker is now the editor-in-chief of CraftBeer.com where she and her talented team are bringing you the stories about small and independent breweries. She’s a runner, but I’m guessing that is because she probably drinks a lot of beer. We’re going to find out. She’s a die hard Springsteen fan, which immediately makes me like her. We love The Boss! She’s also a new mom and so she’s always scouting family friendly breweries. Hi Jess.
Jess Baker: Hi Ceslie. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
CA: Absolutely. I’m so thrilled you’re on today’s. Let’s tell our audience directly from the source: What is the short definition of a craft brewer? So what qualifies as a craft brewer?
JB: A craft brewer is, as the The Brewers Association defines it, is small, which means they make less than 6 million barrels of beer each year. And independent. So less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. So small and independent are truly the what define a craft brewer here in the United States.
CA: So really I’m imagining that means a lot of families, a lot of family owned businesses, probably
CA: Friends going into partnership together.
JB: Absolutely. A lot of passion. Yes, all those things. And that’s something that really attracted me to the industry. I was working in news and weather for a long time and when I tripped into a craft beer festival in Atlanta, probably around 2009. I grew up around beer. My dad was a lifelong beer lover, but by 2009 and that beer festival, I didn’t realize that’s what beer in America was becoming. It was becoming craft beer and owned exactly like you said by family and friends and people who get together and start a business out of passion for beer. And I was like, this is beer now? I was so enchanted by the idea that you could own a business and make beer for a living. Like how cool is that?
CA: Yes! And to be the editor-in-chief of the definitive website for that is pretty cool. As you’re describing it, I’m thinking about the over 25 years I lived in New York City and all of these wonderful historic taverns we would frequent. Some of which are still in existence, like the White Horse and many others. I’m thinking of people coming to America who were making the beer, which probably tasted very different back then, but that is really craft in the true sense of the word. The way you’re describing it, it just is conjuring up all those images.
JB: Back before prohibition, the people who were making beer then they really brought it, they brought their culture with them. So the Germans brought the German culture, they would come here to the U S and that’s where we get a lot of the beer styles that people would be most familiar with. Even now we’re seeing Italian style Americanized craft beer come up, which is really cool. We have a story on it right now. But it truly is a culture and family and yet it’s by people who really are passionate and crafted for flavor on a smaller level.
CA: So they can hone their skills. I don’t know if the association is tracking this and if you’re reporting on it, but there must be an incredible economic impact, not only overall to the industry, which we can talk about in a minute, but specifically to the small towns and communities where these passionate beer makers with these brewers are working from I mean, they have to employ people there. They’re renting space there…
JB: Putting money right back into the communities. Absolutely. And that’s the thing too that we’ve seen about craft beer. It’s truly manufacturing when you think about it. So as craft brewing grows here in the U.S., it brings jobs back to small towns. The cool thing is we’re also seeing revivals of areas. For instance, I live in the “rust belt.” So in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Toledo wherever small breweries go they tend to be part of a cultural revitalization because they bring people back to those areas, they bring manufacturing back to the areas. So it really does create an economic impact in our communities here in America.
CA: Wow. I can see that. I’m living in an area where I’m from, which is San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country and that’s between San Antonio and Austin, which is the wine country here. And you really do see agribusiness impacting the economy and impacting the culture and people being proud, particularly in this area of their German heritage. So I can kind of see the parallel path of agribusiness hand in hand with brewing. I mean there has to be some kind of economic impact that this is having on the “non craft beer” part of the industry. I don’t want to say the big guys and I also don’t want to call it “guys,” I don’t know how else to refer to the large corporate…
JB: We say “big beer” and I wouldn’t say that craft is necessarily chipping too much into their bottom line at the end of the day, but that’s also not necessarily the point. It’s kind of an apples and oranges. In 2018 craft brewers sales made up about 13%. of the U.S. beer market by volume. And that equates to a little bit more than $27 billion of the U.S. beer market. And, it’s a little bit more every year, which is great to see. But it’s truly not about competing with the big beer companies. It’s really truly about being that local place for your community to go, which is really, really what it’s all about. And also about great beer, exciting flavors. The economic impact that the craft breweries are having as a whole is about $80 billion on the U S economy as a whole and creating 150,000 jobs in the U.S. workforce; and, that’s at breweries alone. So that doesn’t even count the agriculture, the farmers, the malt stirrers, and more that touch the product as it goes throughout the chain.
CA: So let’s talk about that because you just conjured up the name of this show: Grapes, Grains & Grub. So it really is a handshake throughout the process. We can say it’s the supply chain of what we consume, but it really is a handshake. We’ve had great interviews with distillers that talk about the relationships that they have with the farmers because they need their crops to make their whiskey. So there must be some really interesting stories about farmers and brewers that have locked arms and are creating great product.
JB: The longer I do this job, the more great stories I see in these partnerships with farmers and brewers. Part of it is because brewers are trying to be as local as possible because they want to bring the flavor of the place where they are into their beer. Using local ingredients is absolutely one way to do that. Also, it’s small business supporting small. And of course there is the green sustainability of it all because you’re sourcing ingredients closer to home so you’re not leaving as much of a footprint on the environment. So that’s another benefit of brewers and farmers working together. One of my favorite stories that shows how they’re working together is out of Arizona. We published the story a year or two ago, about the Verde River in Arizona. It’s a very important river for farmers, but also once it reaches the Phoenix Metro area, it becomes drinking water supply for about 2 million people there.
JB: The the river itself really dries out in the summer and struggles to thrive. Recently, the Nature Conservancy and a couple of Arizona craft brewers and Arizona farmers have figured out that if they plant barley instead of traditional crops like corn, it uses less water to grow the barley. So they’ve been able to truly work together and then using the barley and the beer because the brewers want the local ingredients. It’s this great way that they’re able to bring life back to the river in times that it would normally be dry simply by planning a small amount of a different crop. So I love and how they all got together. It is so good!
CA: Wow! That is. Let’s acknowledge that’s what can happen when there is not a giant amount of red tape. Right? So that’s a community; a small business; and, caring individuals coming together to make something happen. I just hope that what’s happening with craft beer and the culture of brewers is seeping into the whole retail mentality too. I know that customers don’t always have the benefit of being able to go to a brewery that has a storefront. For instance, I know there’s some great ones here in the Hill Country, that also have delicious food. Then you fill your growler and you’re on your way. So if you don’t have the opportunity to do something like that, what do you see happening at the retail level where you can go in and you see an assortment of beer? Is it hard for the craft brewers to break into major retail or is that something that’s on the rise?
JB: I think it just depends on a business plan. The industry is changing so rapidly at the moment because at this point we have more than 7,500 operating breweries in the U.S. so you’ve got to have a great business plan and whatever that is for your brewery, maybe different from the brewery that 10 miles away from. So the tap room culture–and that’s when you may not distribute a ton if any beer–that’s not the worst thing because you’re going to force people to come into your brewery to have that experience that you want them to have with your beer. Also, they can’t just grab it at the grocery store.
CA: It sounds like it’s more experiential and then you’re able to be in that environment, feel the culture, taste the flavor, and really fully experience it all. But then what if you go away? You go back to a different state maybe five states away. How do you get your hands on that beer?
JB: Trust me, we just moved from Atlanta a year ago and I struggled with it. So yeah, it’s a toughie; but, it can really just depend on the business plan. There’s so many models out there that can work; but, it depends on what that individual brewery founder really wants to do with their brewery.
CA: Our show is defined as a culinary destination show. That’s how we define it because we do believe that. We always say “plane, train, or automobile, just get there!” So, I’m encouraging our listeners that you may want to go to the CraftBeer.com website and make sure that you read all these incredible stories that are there because you could build a whole culinary destination around a craft brewery tour.
JB: Oh, you sure can! We craft beer geeks, call them a “beercations.” There are some cities in the U.S. that are so great for beercations and just speaking as a beer geek myself, being walkable is super important. And if they’ve got a couple of breweries that you can easily get to, whether walkable or via public transport that also can make for super beercation cities. Also, great food cultures like Asheville is a great beercation destination. I believe that grand Rapids, Michigan is another one that people will want to go to. And if you don’t mind making a drive, and I think they still might have a brew bus, but it can go down to Kalamazoo as well, which isn’t too far. There are so many cities that are finding that beer drives tourism so if a city is focused on both a travel tourism destination marketing plan, but, also has the level of laws that can support these small businesses, you can really see cities and downtowns to thrive from craft brewers.
CA: Well we see that happening in Texas. We see that happening in New York, and the West certainly. With the association being based in Colorado, that’s square in the middle. There must be a lot of interesting breweries just around that area as well. Probably anywhere in the United States. What I love that you said earlier is about the flavor that really reflects the area. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because to me that’s, that’s really a big difference than going to the your grocery store or wherever you shop and you quickly grab a six pack and it’s the same flavor over and over again. There is something to be said for consistency and flavor, but when you want something different and fun and to experiment–I mean that’s really fun.
JB: Yes, and that’s what craft brewers are in America. That’s part of what their heartbeat is: Truly the experimentation and doing fun things with old styles, making them new again, putting an American spin on them. The ingredients really do tie back to localization. This reminds me of a story we published just last month about Florida breweries that are recently applying for a “Fresh from Florida” seal. That seal used to be for Florida oranges only because the agriculture department down in Florida was trying to help the small growers marketing their products. Small farmers don’t have the money to do their own marketing, but they thought, ‘Hey, let’s create a seal for the small farmers in our state so that when people like I want Florida orange, they know this is a fresh from Florida orange.’
JB: So now brewers are applying for and getting that seal and it doesn’t have to be an orange, but just when they’re using Florida ingredients. So that’s been pretty cool. And strawberries out of Plant City, Florida, that was an ingredient that we talked about in the story. There is a brewery that makes a beer based on a strawberry festival every year and they wanted to recreate that awesome memory from their childhood of Florida strawberries. They use the Florida strawberries in their beer. The produce down in Florida is basically available all year and always in season, more or less. So you’ll see a lot of cool uses of produce in Florida beers. New York state itself, they have a farm brewery designation, but the farm brewery doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going be drinking beer by cows. It means that a certain percentage of the beer at the brewery is made using New York state ingredients. So it truly is about the place, about being local and supporting other local businesses in and around you.
CA: I love it. So what I’m learning here today, and I’m sure our listeners are too, that this industry really is about a sense of place. It’s like the taste and the experience of the sense of place which I hadn’t thought about before. That is so cool. I’m loving it! Let’s just talk about women in the craft beer industry because I’ve read several articles where this is on the rise. For instance, if you look at Land O’Lakes that is an organization for farmers across America, they see an increasing rise of women farmers as part of their organization. So that has to be going hand in hand with craft beer.
JB: It is. We are seeing more women; but, it’s not that there weren’t any previously. I think as the industry continues to grow and also the appeal of beer continues to grow–like me, I was a beer lover who now works in beer–I think that’s the appeal. As the appeal of beer continues to grow and there’s more breweries, more women are realizing, ‘yeah, this is a career I can do and that I want to do.’ So we are seeing it grow. Now the numbers aren’t astronomical by any sense. It’s not that women weren’t welcome before. Surprisingly enough, we had talked to some of the original pioneering women in beer in the 80s and the early nineties, and they all felt like just the community of craft beer and helping other brewers is pretty much thing thing of why craft beer is craft beer.
JB: The women said that when they were entering craft beer, they didn’t feel like they were embraced more so than had they been going into some other industry. Overall. So I thought that was pretty cool. And I love when people ask me about the women in beer because I say, “right, I’m a woman and beer.” Now, I know I don’t make the beer, but I do know that my boss is also a woman in beer and a kickass woman in beer at that. I have lots of friends who own or co-own the breweries. Heck, even in my beer group in Atlanta there are more women than men in that.
CA: To all the marketing departments: Take note because women make the buy decision in the household and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I mean women are in beer no matter what. Right?
JB: Yes and even going back to some of the art in the beer marketing from the ‘30s and ‘40s, you can see that the companies realized that they needed to appeal to women because they’re the ones who are buying. They started to change the art direction of how they would make that art and how they would sell the beer.
CA: Well, you have such an interesting job Jess Baker. As a fellow journalist, I can tell you listeners that when you’re leading a team and leading an industry that is telling those stories as they do at CraftBeer.com, you want to have that deep well of content so to speak, and you have stories that could go on for hundreds of years. Your industry is so interesting.
JB: Yeah, it really is. And I am usually overwhelmed by story pitches from our authors and from our writers and I wish I could take them all. There’s so many stories to tell out there and they really are about the people. When I was getting into beer as a beer lover, it was about the people to me. So when I started work at CraftBeer.com, I really wanted to take the focus off the beer because pretty much everyone has an IPA, and, everyone has a stout. But the thing is, with each of those people we want to know: What drives them to be in beer? What drives them to run a brewery? That’s what I thought was so interesting. I’d go on brewery tours (and everyone has a brewery tour) and I hear from these founders and these brewers about why they were in love with yeast, and what was so magical about beer to them. I’d get chills and I thought that I really need to tell these people’s stories. So yes, I never run out of being inspired. I’m inspired by the people who make the magic happen.
CA: Well that’s wonderful and it surely shows. Everyone please go to CraftBeer.com I would say listeners, even if you’re not totally a “beer geek” like Jess is and totally mad about beer like her; but, have any interest in the stories behind it the beer, they really do take some wonderful deep dives into the personalities, the destinations and everything having to do with the industry. It really is revealing about who we are as a nation and our communities. It’s just interesting. That’s all I can say all the way around. Jess, I’m so happy that you joined us today on Grapes, Grains & Grub and continued success and I’m sure we will be checking back in with you over time because there’s so many, like you said, this industry is growing so quickly. So there is going to be news to tell, I’m sure.
JB: Yes, please do. Reach back out. It was really great to talk about something I love so much with you today Ceslie. So thank you. I appreciate it.
CA: Best wishes from everyone because Jess is a new mom. Have a great day. And everybody, this has been Jess Baker. She is the editor in chief of CraftBeer.com.