Anyone who knows me or has taken a peek into my refrigerator or beer cellar knows I’m an absolute freak when it comes to Founders Brewing Company and their tasty beers. In fact, if I had to pick just one brewery to buy beer from for the rest of my life, it would probably be Founders. Their beers have broadened my horizons when it comes to how my favorite fermented beverage can taste and their products have served as a bridge that has brought many of my friends and family across the often-intimidating chasm between macros and craft beer. Red’s Rye, Harvest Ale, Breakfast Stout and KBS have truly been irreplaceable contributors to my personal craft beer revolution. I make sure to be among the first at local stores for any Founders release and I’ve even been known to make the 6 hour drive to the brewery in Grand Rapids to ensure I have enough beer to enjoy and share with family and friends between annual releases.
With that in mind, you can imagine the sense of excitement I felt when I heard that Founders would be releasing an extremely limited number of bottles of their sought-after Raspberry beer ‘Blushing Monk’ in summer 2011. Blushing Monk hasn’t been seen or heard of since 2007, and, even then, the beer came and went in the blink of an eye in Ohio. I was just taking my first steps up the ladder those days, and, as a hop head inexperienced with more limited releases, ‘Monk’ was completely off my radar. Luckily, I got to try the brew at a tasting a few years ago, and I was thrilled when I heard this tasty treat would return from retirement to hit leadoff in the new Founders Backstage Series of 22oz bottles. With only a very limited number of cases in Ohio, Blushing Monk would likely be rarer than KBS or Devil Dancer or any Founders beer in recent memory.
Then, my heart skipped a beat – a quick check of the calendar confirmed that the release was the very day I would leave for a week-long trip to Missoula, Montana for my younger Brother’s wedding. On July 5th, the official street date, I would be waking up at 4am then flying west across two thirds of the USA – there was just no way I could make it to any of the stores. Sure, when you take a step back, this was just another beer, and, if I missed out, life would go on. I had a fantastic wedding to look forward to as well as an opportunity to enjoy a ton of new beers in Missoula, so I really was going to be a winner in the end. Plus, to be perfectly honest, the novelty of special releases and rare beers is starting to be a bit less attractive to me these days as we have so many great, fresh and creative beers on tap in Northeast Ohio breweries and tap rooms every day with no lines, no golden tickets needed and no flaming hoops to jump through. But I still asked around to see if I could reserve a bottle or two, and I inadvertently stumbled into a controversy of sorts. It all began when one of my favorite independent stores (a top ranked establishment on all the beer guides and one I can always count on to have special release beer) told me they wouldn’t be getting any Blushing Monk and they were upset they couldn’t offer it to me.
That’s not the issue in itself. I understand that there’s a process to allocate these releases and stores that don’t have the absolute strongest yearly sales volumes show up below the line when there’s only so much to go around. Not to mention, as a friend to a few brewery representatives and hard-working distributors, I know these ladies and gentlemen literally hate having to say no to their accounts. Allocating special releases is probably the most stressful part of their jobs. In a perfect world, there would always be enough beer to go around. In today’s world of craft beer, that’s a dream that just can’t come true.
But here’s where the tale takes a turn. I’m not sure if it’s a turn for the better or worse as no one knows where this new road will lead us. I discovered that, while the small, independent store I mentioned earlier had been denied their request for a case of Blushing Monk, several Heinen’s Supermarkets had gotten orders filled. For the non-Northeast Ohio residents unfamiliar with the chain, the Heinen’s markets are family owned grocery stores that focus on high-end ingredients and are the polar opposite of the “self-checkout” kind of big-box food shops. Their selection varies from store to store, but some of their locations are good craft beer destinations, complete with knowledgeable and passionate sales people dedicated to beer.
Was I surprised? Yes and No. See, it’s obvious from the growler stations at Whole Foods (and now at Heinen’s too) to the 6 packs of Great Lakes Burning River on BP gas station shelves that craft beer has gone at-least-somewhat mainstream. The fact that Heinen’s can approach the top of the list of Founders accounts in Ohio is also not a surprise. With 17 stores, the buying power of Heinen’s is huge. But, along with 2011 KBS, Blushing Monk is one of the very first extremely limited releases I’ve seen the stores stock, minus the efforts of a flagship store like their Strongsville location bringing in one case here and there. With 2011 KBS this wasn’t an issue; many independent retailers were allotted fewer bottles than in 2010, but all of the usual suspects were able to reward their good customers with a bottle or two.
The biggest difference with this year’s Founders Blushing Monk release and previous releases is that this is the first time I can recall seeing some of the successful local, independent craft beer stores unable to get a limited release while the chain store was.
Is that a problem? No, it’s business. However, it’s certainly a new development and could be a glimpse of where special release beers are heading. Let’s take a look at both sides of the issue.
I can find it pretty easy to sympathize with the little guy here. Many of the small stores have been around since before the current craft beer boom, and they’ll be around if things settle down and craft sales fall off. I know Heinen’s has always stocked products like Great Lakes, but the store has only relatively recently put any emphasis on beer selection. There’s also the obvious issue of scale – think of the argument that’s made every time Wal-Mart opens in a city. There’s no way a small store that gets 100-200 customers in a good day can compete with 17 stores that have a constant stream of people morning, noon and night. Sales aside, I think there’s also a question of respect for the part the stores have played in the Northeast Ohio craft beer revolution, not to mention the fact smaller stores have more experience in how to handle special releases. Plus, while craft beer isn’t the same as music in terms of bootleg potential (can you download beer yet?), the decline of independent record stores in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s makes me fear my favorite craft beer stores may actually see tougher times in the years ahead despite being in a booming industry. After all, if they can’t supply their die-hard customers with limited products, there’s a good chance those customers will follow the special beers and move on. As for release handling, the smaller stores I frequent limit beers like this to one a person, keep product behind the counter, and do their best to use the beers as a reward to good customers. I think that’s also in line with the brewers’ wishes, as every brewer I’ve ever talked to deplores profiteering, hoarding and secondary markets like eBay. While some Heinen’s have employees who really know their stuff, the nature of the store (12 hours/7 days a week) leads to times when the “beer guy” just isn’t around and the night crew shelf stocker accidentally puts out the case just in time for some early AM opportunist to take it all home. A quick scan of the web the week after the release date found several people trading multiple bottles of Blushing Monk on the popular beer trading forums and no less than 9 bottles on eBay from Ohio alone. I bet the small independent store’s customers wouldn’t have treated the release as an opportunity to profit because they are in it for the beer not a quick score.
But this article is anything but a criticism of Heinen’s in particular. In fact, I can see how bigger stores like Heinen’s will be ground zero for the next level of growth for craft beer. Several Heinen’s stores now have growler stations, and their end-cap displays certainly expose more people to craft beer on a daily basis than any non-grocer. Plus, Heinen’s (in particular) has every right to be identified as a positive contributor to the craft beer scene, with several stores holding tastings and events on a semi-regular basis and corporate sponsorship of events like Cleveland Beer Week. I love that, for at least one week of the year, I can stroll through the store and meet brewers, reps and even quaff a fine stout while I decide what I want to cook for dinner. Here’s the heart of the issue – if we truly want to be craft beer evangelists and permeate mainstream beer culture with better products, we absolutely cannot keep the special beers to ourselves. We need to move them out of the small circles and backrooms they exist in and take them towards the mainstream – otherwise we are not being true to our self-proclaimed cause of promoting better beer and the Buds, Millers and Coors of the world will continue their domination. The person who discovers a revelation in a bottle like Blushing Monk while grocery shopping could be the individual who, years from now, leads craft beer to the exalted heights we only dream of today. After all, who doesn’t remember stumbling upon that first six pack that got you hooked? I do – I was finishing up my weekly shopping at the Mustard Seed Market in Akron and saw an unassuming white cardboard 6 pack which held 72oz of Bells Expedition Stout and I’ve never looked at beer the same way. I like to think that the next Sam Calagione, Garrett Oliver, Greg Koch, Larry Bell or even the next lowly beer blogger (maybe Billy or Beverly Likes Beer) is just a sip away from realizing their quest and joining the fight that will one day bring us to the promised land of milk stout and honey ale.
I think that this trend will continue unless something gives on the production or distribution side of things – the landscape of craft beer retailing is changing. I certainly don’t blame Heinen’s for ordering the beer given the chance and I really respect the job they do with moving more people up the ladder away from adjunct lagers. I absolutely don’t blame the distributor for taking care of an excellent account. But I also cannot fault the small, independent stores for being upset that their buying power doesn’t go as far as it used to when there were less retailers vying for limited beers. And Heinen’s is a great store with community values and an emphasis on fresh, locally sourced food, but I fear what will happen when Giant Eagle, Krogers and other big box stores enter the craft beer game. And I’m not even going to mention how bigger stores can absorb losses caused by unsellable overages of product to subsidize sales numbers to get their hands on premium products – that’s my worst nightmare but I’ll be optimistic for now and not even go down that road. The bottom line is that I know I can’t answer this conundrum, but I thought it was important to report my observations and give you a chance to comment. I encourage you to decide for yourself and support whatever retailer you wish to as long as they’re committed to selling better beer – luckily both the small stores and Heinen’s are so we’re pretty well supported here in Northeast Ohio! Just remember, with more players in the retailing game, you make a statement every time you buy a beer. You are quite literally voting with your wallet, so be aware and make it count or forever hold your peace.
I asked my fantastic fans on Facebook and 78% thought the independent retailers should be given first crack at these beers regardless of sales numbers while only 9% thought the beer should go to places like Heinen’s where new fans would have a chance to find it. I don’t think this was a scientifically significant sample, but it gave me the courage to proceed with this piece or at least confirm that I wasn’t the only one seeing a change between past releases and present as well as a disconnect between the retail marketplace and conventional consumer expectations. Regardless of the way the bottles were allocated, I got lucky and one of my favorite independent retailers who did make the cut held a bottle for me upon my return to Ohio. Now I can share this review with you, but I’m also curious to see what everyone else thought of the beer, so please post your opinion below about Blushing Monk as well as your take on the way the beer was sent across the state!
Founders Blushing Monk
A vigorous pour into my Founders Snifter produced a first for me. While the beer itself was a dark crimson color with ruby highlights, the head was pink – bright pink – and absolutely stunning. I’ve never seen that before. Once the head dissipated, the beer looked like a glass of red wine and was very mouth-watering. No real lace was observed aside from a small ring (more of a stain than anything else). The smell was also a revelation. There were so many layers of raspberry I didn’t know where the fruit ended and the beer began. Moderate tartness, jelly-like sweetness, and juicy fruit flesh all contribute to the biggest fruit bomb I’ve ever smelled. There may be a hint of yeast and some other tart fruit if I concentrate enough, but picking out anything other than raspberry is like finding ‘Where’s Waldo’.
The taste continued the theme of all raspberries all the time. There’s a decadent raspberry sweetness like a jelly or sorbet, then some mild tartness that reminds me a bit of fruit Lambic, particularly a less sweet version of Lindeman’s Framboise. There’s some sweetness present, but the lush fruit and tart edge balance this beer out, and no unnatural flavors are noted. A mild Belgian yeast presence reminds me this is a beer and not some kind of Raspberry wine. I heard Founders used almost $40,000 worth of raspberries in this beer, and they really have created the ultimate tribute to the fruit. With honorable mentions going to New Glarus’ excellent Raspberry Tart and Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus, this beer is the best raspberry ale ever made in my opinion. The beer has an excellent mouthfeel, with just enough carbonation to complement the deep levels of fruit and a medium body that is lush and velvety. The bottom line is that Blushing Monk is a big winner and a beer that almost any beer drinker will enjoy. It’s a shame the bottles came and went, but hopefully this beer led to more than a few ‘a-ha’ moments.
Does Bobby Like Founders ‘Blushing Monk’?
Why do I feel like every article I write these days comes with a disclaimer? Hopefully I’m not becoming the Glenn Beck of Beer, the Rush Limbaugh of Lagers or the Dennis Kucinich of, well, anything – I don’t want to cause controversy for its own sake and I certainly don’t want to make anyone contributing to the craft beer movement feel bad about their business or role in a store like Heinen’s. Please know this is not an attack on any person, organization or anything at all. This article is meant to get a discussion going in hopes that we can all be more aware of what’s happening in the retail marketplace, no matter what side we sympathize with (or, if we’re even mature enough to not pick a side at all – I personally buy beer from independents and Heinen’s). I’m curious whether you agree or disagree with something I’m hearing people express online and in stores, so let’s get the conversation going and explore and respect each other’s opinions. Please don’t feel like I have less craft beer love for any of you than I did before this article or this release. You’re all superstars in my book as long as you keep spreading the word about better brews. Craft beer evangelists make the world a better place whether they work for a chain supermarket or a small shop. At least that’s something we can all agree on!
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