Today we hear from Mustang Brewing Co. brewmaster Gary Shellman.
The Thirsty Beagle: How would you describe the tone of the Craft Brewers Conference this year?
Gary Shellman: I would use the terms focused, but somewhat tense. Congressional efforts were front and center — mostly tax relief initiatives for our industry, and there are diverse views on definitions of what constitutes a craft brewer nowadays. How was it different or the same when comparing it to the tone of the conference over the past several years? In previous years, the tone has focused simply on the huge upswing of craft brewing growth, which is still ongoing today. There are opposing views on tax relief and craft brewer definition amongst different groups pursuing legislative change.
TTB: What were some specific points passed along from the leadership of the Brewers Association — or from other brewers — that made an impression on you?
Gary: We need tax relief to level the playing field with large-scaled brewers, since we pay a higher tax rate (disproportionate share) per barrel of beer produced. The focus remains on quality and gaining further market share from the large brewers, rather than re-dividing craft beer’s current share amongst more microbreweries that continue to enter the industry.
TTB: When you think about the direction the craft beer industry is going in Oklahoma right now, what do you feel? Is Oklahoma a good reflection of what’s happening on the national scene right now?
Gary: I think we’re headed in the right direction, with the addition of new breweries. In Oklahoma, we really look like the craft beer industry in the rest of the U.S. did about five years ago. We are growing rapidly now, but that growth curve just recently accelerated in the past three to four years.
TTB: I’ve heard the argument that a lot of new brewers are getting into the game because it seems fun or cool, and that they’re more interested in making money than they are in making good beer — and that may diminish the quality of what’s out there on the market. Playing devil’s advocate here, I’ve also heard it said that that argument is being made by established brewers who don’t want new guys cutting into their sales, market, etc. Where do you stand? Bring it on as long as they’re dedicated to making good beer?
Gary: There is plenty of room for new breweries, and different styles of beer. A serious point made at CBC is that if you’re not focused on high standards and quality, you ought to find a different industry for employment, because if you’re not serious about making quality craft beer, you won’t survive as a craft brewer. This is not a get-rich-quick industry. Craft beer is cool, but the only way to succeed is to follow your passion and maintain high standards of cleanliness and sanitization, as well as following rigid procedures to ensure consistency and quality. I’ve seen a few brewers bounce around the craft beer arena from one brewery to another because they lack established procedures, standards, and specific cleaning and sanitizing regimens that ensure success. It won’t take very long before they either realign with an established brewery that has high standards, or find themselves in another line of work.
TTB: One point that’s not up for debate is that the craft beer industry is growing fast. People have said this could cause problems for brewers trying to secure grains, hops and equipment — all of which are becoming more scarce; or that it could cause liquor store owners and bar managers to drop old standards so they can stock the latest flavor of the month. Are these real problems everyone is dealing with, or will have to deal with?
Gary: Establishing contracts for ingredients (primarily hops) is a critical path to success. Grain and yeast are readily available in the marketplace. Without hop contracts, brewers have to purchase hops on the spot market, and there have been certain hops that remain unavailable without a contract in place, which can limit the types of beers any new brewer can produce. Hop shortages take several years to eliminate, with the reduced acreage planted now, versus in recent years.
TTB: Lastly, what advice would you offer to new brewers or those wanting to get into the business?
Gary: Establish your standards now. Examine your business model carefully. Research your planned market, and pursue your craft brewing dreams passionately. If a batch of beer doesn’t finish correctly and meet your standards, don’t be afraid to dump the batch in the name of quality control — your customers will thank you for it.