That question would inspire myriad answers from different people and surely a case could be made for any number of craft brewers. But someone must occupy the throne.
At least , that’s what Forbes magazine thinks, bestowing the crown upon Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada, declaring that his 35-plus-year-old brewery is “winning the hops war.”
In a lengthy profile, Forbes tells the story of a larcenous-adolescent-turned-bike-shop-manager-turned-overseer-of-a-craft-beer-empire, and how he stays relevant in a booming business.
“It’s a grow-or-die mentality,” Grossman told the magazine. “If our brand isn’t growing, somebody else’s will. You can have a business model where you put the brakes on and only sell 30 cases of this really exotic, really expensive beer. But we’ve grown way past that.”
So how does the second biggest craft brewery in the country facilitate growth?
“Sierra Nevada’s answer is to stay close to its roots, constantly innovate and co-opt tiny competitors by partnering with them,” the article notes.
That, Grossman said, is how you turn a $100,000 initial investment, financed by friends and family, into a $200 million per year enterprise.
Skipping cross-country to Massachusetts, you’ll find another worthy candidate for the crown in Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co. But he’s likely more focused on other things, like getting a bill passed that would loosen his home state’s restrictions on brewer-wholesaler relationships.
As Brewbound reported in November, that legislative battle has been raging for quite a while now and the Boston Globe just ran an op-ed this week penned by William Kelley, president of Beer Distributors of Massachusetts, in which he argued against pending legislation.
“The legislation on the table aims to change the already flexible laws that are currently in place here in Massachusetts, which regulate brewer-distributor relationships,” he wrote. “If passed, the legislation allows craft brewers to break partnerships with distributors at a moment’s notice for no specific reason at all.”
In November, Kelley told Brewbound that the bill would create “market disincentive” for distributors, as taking on new brands would create serious financial risk.
The bill itself — backed by influential beer executives like Koch and Dan Kenary, co-founder of Harpoon Brewery — specified that the law would apply only to brewers whose volume does not exceed 20 percent of a distributor’s overall sales.
Luke Livingston, founder of Maine-based Baxter Brewing, which is a supplier for distributor Massachusetts Beverage Alliance, said at the time that he “would never sign a contract without an ‘out-clause’” for his brewery.
“It doesn’t mean I would leave any of my distributors,” he said. “I just need to have the right to do that.”
Not all conflict within the beer industry is actually about beer, however.
Last week, the ever outspoken UK-based brewery BrewDog reminded the world that behind every brewery is human emotion by taking Russian President Vladimir Putin to task over his country’s mistreatment of gay people with the release of a satirical brew named, “Hello, my name is Vladimir.”
Now, Wasatch Brewery, of Park City, Utah, is speaking up in its support of gay rights with the release of a blonde pale ale called Live and Let Live.
The beer was made pairing two types of the same ingredients.
“Live and Let Live is a blond pale ale built with two beautiful malts and two wonderful hops, all fermented with a pair of yeasts,” said Wasatch brewer Dan Burick in a press release. “This pairing of similar ingredients is a first for Utah and we think it’s way overdue.”
Burick, laying the metaphor on thick, described the beer as an endorsement of marriage equality.
“We realize this beer is not for everyone, and we will not force it on those who prefer more traditional brew styles.” he said. “These pairings are not the norm in Utah right now and we expect resistance from many. However, we are confident that in the near future Utah will look back and wonder why they didn’t embrace and celebrate Live and Let Lives’ natural combinations. They will also realize that Live and Let Live is not a threat to traditional beers.”
Because what’s more natural than love or beer? The fear of flying maybe? (But isn’t beer the best remedy for that too?)
Last week New Belgium announced it would be taking to the sky and now Surly Brewing, of Minneapolis, Minn., is earning its wings as well. The brand is now available on all Sun Country Airlines flights.
Passengers can enjoy cans of Furious, Bender, and Hell for $7, confirmed an airline spokesperson, but for those who pony up for a first class ticket, the brews come complimentary. What better way to get over a fear of heights?