Crispin Cider: Is Your Favorite Cider Company Becoming Bigger and Better or Just Bigger?

The other day I was perusing my favorite beer blogs as I’m wont to do and I came upon a certain piece of news that wretched my gut and made me want to vomit and yell at the same time. ‘WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?’ I screamed in my head, gawking at the headline. See for yourself. But don’t read the post. Just react. Check yourself. Think about your feelings. Now read my post…

It took me a second and then I got over it. Then I was just sad. Another one, gone. In case you didn’t click on the link, here’s the big news: MillerCoors has officially purchased Crispin Cider. Are you upset yet? Or are you with me, moping over here in thiscorner? Well, get over here, let’s talk this out.

So here’s why I’m upset: I feel betrayed.

I feel betrayed for a few reasons:

1) Did you know Crispin isn’t even made in Minnesota? I guess I should’ve known that one. It’s made in California, it’s just BASED in Minneapolis (and the owner is South African, something that makes me like Crispin more because I know how the South Africans love their cider). Now it all makes sense. That’s why they partner with Fox Barrel—they’re also from Cali. So what part of Minnesota was I supporting by buying Crispin besides the prestige they add to the Minnesota beer scene as being a premium cider manufacturer?

2) Apparently the owner of Crispin, Joe Heron, feels that “People see these [companies like MillerCoors] as huge monolithic companies, but these are real people who are all about beer. They make their regular products, but they are just as much into the craft as anybody.” I get it, I’m one of these ‘people,’ and it makes me feel guilty, because I’m sure they are into the craft. But it’s a business and cheap crappy beer is also a business (I would know, I drink it too). I feel like he’s called me out on being a beer snob, elitist even, and hating these hard-working Americans because they’re not working for a true craft brewery and it makes me feel bad. Boo.

3) At my core, I feel like “there’s another good one, gone to the dark side.” But the point that Heron makes is that a decision like this means they will have a larger span of resources, expertise, and access to currently untapped markets. And it’s not just like they’re going to MillerCoors the giant, they’re going specifically to the craft and import division, the giant’s baby finger called ‘The Tenth and Lake Beer Company’ that works their magic to acquire companies like Crispin (with presumably the best intentions, based on point #2). Oh, and they own Leinenkugel’s. I think the part that bothers me the most is the length all these companies go to to hide the fact that they are indeed part of the giant. The village knows the giant is the giant even if he wears townspeople clothes – or does it?

4) The upside: Crispin promises its drinkership that yes, the quality will remain the same, and that it’s only going to get even better from here, now that they can continue to grow as the brewery we know and love. But Minnesota was just not enough. Too small, too local. Too ‘niche.’ Time to go to Colorado and play with the big boys. But should we feel happy for Crispin? Didn’t we beam as our friends who hadn’t heard of Crispin before tried it at our encouragement and loved it? Yes. Didn’t we get excited when we saw a new kind of cider they were experimenting with at our local liquor store? Yes. Shouldn’t we want to share it with more people so we never have to say, “Do you have Crispin down here? No?! Bummer.” Shouldn’t we breathe a sigh of relief?

5) Wasn’t this Joe Heron’s dream from day one? Isn’t this every brewery owner – no, homebrewer’s – dream? To make the big time, have everyone know and love your beer, ask their liquor stores to get it, belly up to the bar to indulge in it, and you have all the money in the world to do what you do, brew and share your brew with those who truly love it and love good beer? Yes. Shouldn’t we applaud him for his entrepreneurial genius and for making a fucking awesome cider with great branding? Sigh. Yes. Heron has played a huge role in making cider what it is today, and it’s only going to get better from here (see this article for more on that, it’s really interesting; cider’s market share is rapidly increasing, and Crispin’s sales in particular has grown over 300% in the last year). We should be happy. But why can’t I get this bad taste out of my mouth?

The blog post that shared this information with me has clearly made me think a lot more about my beer values and mores, while the author, Michael Agnew Master Cicerone, is seemingly pretty neutral on the topic, just sharing the news and letting us take it as we will.  But then the post ends, a billion thoughts running through my head, he says as a statement of fact that makes the doubt in the back of my mind gurgle to life, “That being said, Killian’s Irish Red is not the beer it once was.” (Ok, now that I’ve ruined it, go ahead and read his whole post) This, my friends, is why I was originally so upset and is not something I can talk/write myself out of. Because of this purchase and subsequent relationship, Crispin is no longer the cider I loved, even if it is. Even though I will still drink it and respect it for what it’s done to the beer and cider industry, I won’t love it as I once did with the same blind affection. And I know that even with all the innovation and distribution they might have in the future, I will never get that feeling back.

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Oh Good, The North Koreans Make Beer

As some of you may know, I recently returned from a week-long trip to visit my parents (and Owen!) at their new home in South Korea. It was awesome and I did a lot in that short time, but that isn’t the topic of this post. Sure, I had a few beer- and alcohol-related experiences, with soju (Korean cheap vodka?), Cass beer,  makle (Korean rice wine), even a maklerita at this Mexican/Korean fusion restaurant, which was delightful. But the most important by far was when I drank my first, and probably last, glass (and by glass I mean paper cup) of North Korean beer.

My parents had both been to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and JSA (joint security area between North and South Korea) before and, well, they didn’t really want to go again. So I boarded the USO tour bus all by my lonesome, not knowing quite what to expect, but hoping that I dressed warm enough. The bus was completely full with all sorts of tourists, but only a handful of Americans, myself included. I sat next to a young Malaysian man, who I gave up trying to converse with when I said, “Where are you from in Malaysia? I used to live in KL.” There was a long pause and then he said, “Penang?” He spent the majority of the bus rides sleeping on my shoulder while I tried to hold back laughter. Oddly enough, I saw him at the Seoul airport when I was waiting for my flight home. Crazy.

After a short and very cold bus ride (the windows were frosted on the inside and outside), we arrived at Camp Boniface where a nice army soldier (his name was Srgt Blood, I shit you not), gave us a ‘briefing’ followed by a generally surly tour, where I decided he hated his job not only because he had to do this stupid civillian tour three times a week, but he wasn’t even in Seoul living on the sweet base with his buddies (which, a young GI later told me as I waited for my parents to escort me onto the base, actually “wasn’t really his cup of tea.”). We walked in two single-file lines a lot, had to wear special ‘guest’ badges (that Srgt Blood insisted be on our outermost clothing on our left lapel) and couldn’t gesture, wave, point, or do anything that would either a) incriminate us to the observing North Koreans as an act of violence/aggression or b) that they could use as propaganda saying how terrible the outside world is. I was very anxious the entire time.

A view of the North Korean Side of the JSA, with Srgt Blood

The DMZ is two kilometers on either side of the division between the two countries, and the JSA is the nice little place where the two countries come together for talks and to be generally petty (historically-speaking). We stood in two rows at the top of a small set of stairs facing the North Korean side of the DMZ, about a hundred meters in front of us. This was an especially important place not to gesture in any way, as one of the North Korean guards was standing at the top of his own set of stairs across the way, watching us closely, waiting. He stood next to a room with a curtain slightly open, just enough to see a camera scanning across our small crowd. Srgt Blood stood towards us when he talked so they wouldn’t read his lips, telling us the long sordid tale of various acts of aggression and compromises and broken promises. It all felt very theatrical, but in a life or death kind of way. I imagine it is not unlike how one feels at a Medieval Times (you know, the staged jousting match where everyone calls each other wenches and they serve you turkey legs and you’re forced to root for the blue team or the red team, depending on what side of the arena you’re sitting on). Like that, but with soldiers and rules that when broken, could have some serious repercussions.

Every place we stopped had a gift shop that sold various North Korean crafts or DMZ-related goods (like pieces of the barbed wire from the fence); this is where I bought Mike a bottle of North Korean made blueberry wine. We stopped at the ‘Third Tunnel,’ one of the tunnels South Koreans discovered their brothers to the north built in an effort to infiltrate Seoul, and climbed to the bottom until we hit the wall that indicates, this time from underground, the division between the two nations (this time, there was no guards, only men in hardhats). We oohed and ahhed and after the trek back up, were ready for lunch. At this point, I was making friends; I met a group of three British guys (Hannah would’ve loved it) who teased me mercilessly for ‘having a thing’ for Srgt Blood (which I did not, he was married anyway). But it was nice to have friends who could encourage me to take photos in front of various ‘photo spots,’ but especially with the young Korean conscript guards who really just wanted to bro it up with the British guys.

After much touring and standing out in the cold while our guide pointed out various parts of North Korea on the horizon (there is a village on the North Korean side of the DMZ that many refer to as ‘Propaganda Village’ that is basically a ‘multimillion dollar stage set’ of a town, used as a facade to keep up appearances. It is home to a flagpole that is taller with a larger flag than that of the town’s counterpart on the South Korean side, auspiciously called ‘Freedom Village’), it was finally time for lunch. We stopped at what she described as ‘the last stop before North Korea,’ a building on the border to the DMZ that some of the villagers from Freedom Village commute through to work (and by work, I mean farm, and they get paid a pretty penny for it, tax free; they make somewhere near $300,000 a year farming this land). It was a pretty bleak building that could have been another uninhabited train station (the other one we visited had been defunct for years because, well, there are no trains going to North Korea) despite the journalists who were milling around just in case something happened. But, lucky for us, our guide told us, we could get beer with our lunch—North Korean beer no less—for the small price of $10/bottle.

I was ecstatic, but I could not justify $10 for a bottle of what I assumed was another half-assed Asian pilsner (a la Tiger Beer from Thailand). So I asked my newly-made friends (thank God they were British) if they wanted to split a bottle with me. One of them, the more rambunctious of the lot, looked at me, back at his friends, and said, “Well, there are four of us. Let’s split two for $5 each.” We waited patiently in line for our cafeteria-style lunch of rice and veggies, miso soup, and satsuma (which I argued was actually just a tangerine, I will never know the difference), but as we neared the head of the line, we got nervous: there were only three bottles left. I shifted my weight between my feet as we made snide comments back and forth about how we would’ve punched the people in front of us if they took the last bottles. The young man in front of me laughed and said, “Don’t worry, we don’t want the beer.” I forgot, that guy was from Singapore and him and his girlfriend spoke great English. And at that moment, the staff brought half a dozen more bottles. We would get our North Korean beer.

I snagged a table near the end of the food line and four paper cups that said, “Have a break?” on them so we could split the beers evenly; I was not about to let these charming British men cheat me out of my fair share of a good story. Stuart grinned and poured the first bottle into the cups and handed them to us. Hungry as all hell, we ignored them, and the novelty they presented, chattering away and eating our rice. “Wait, has anyone tried the beer?” I asked. “Nope,” John said (the English teacher, living in Korea, who his ‘lads’ were visiting). I grabbed my beer and eagerly went to drink it. “What do you think you’re doing, Lizzypoo?” Stuart said. “First we cheers!” And as the first sips poured down our throats, I wasn’t thinking about the sights I’d seen, the Propaganda Village with the large phallic symbol, the green-suited guard closely observing us, the active minefields that flanked the road we drove on to get there, or the seemingly minute anecdotes that Srgt Blood told us about the historical interactions between the two countries. I was thinking about beer and only beer.

We paused for a second, taking it in. “That’s a proper pilsner,” Ryan (the third one and probably the one I could understand least) said. We all nodded. “Not like those American beers I know you like,” Stuart smirked. “Shutuuuuuup,” I said. “We have plenty of good beers in the States, you just haven’t heard of them.” As I tried to explain Surly and the wonder of the Furious to the unwilling British men, we enjoyed our North Korean pilsner. “Five quid a piece, it has to be good,” John said. I learned the nuance of British beers and how they are all superior to American brews because they come in big cans (“Bigger than pints?!” I asked, in awe), as we downed the second bottle for fear of our tour guide giving us the five minute warning and saying “Free time is almost over.” She did this many times during the tour, much to Stuarts ‘highly cultured’ chagrin, who claimed he wasn’t getting enough time at the sub-par museums (to be honest, it was just a lot of dioramas. But I did learn that the DMZ is actually a protected wildlife preserve in South Korea).

As we fought over who was going to keep the bottles, we all agreed none of us had space in our suitcases to bring it back, so we might as well get a lot of photos. Ryan took one of the bottles and insisted I take the other (the label less perfect of the two). Unfortunately, as predicted, it didn’t fit in my bag and I ended up leaving it in my parents’ living room, where it will probably get recycled. Like the experience, the bottle stays. Although the bottle is empty, and the beer is long gone, the taste remains on my tongue. With a sip and a sigh, I thought, “Oh good, the North Koreans make beer.” And a good beer at that. Have a break?

Pairing Beer with Food: The Final Frontier

As I was eating my Caesar salad earlier this week at Biaggi’s in Eden Prairie (please, it was for work, you think I would normally go to Eden Prairie, much less Biaggi’s?), all I could think about was how my salad would be so much tastier with a nice lambic beer, not unlike the one I had at the beer pairing event I went to the Thursday before. A small group of us sat down with the only female certified Cicerone (beer sommellier) in the United States so she could teach us about pairing beer with food: the final frontier.

The idea itself is an interesting one and not one that any beer fiend (friend?) would not be even slightly familiar with: beer + food = yum. But it goes much deeper than that. Fancy restaurants have been limited to fancy wines with their fancy foods, and cheap restaurants have been limited to cheap beers with their cheap foods (i.e. burgers and buds). But the divide is a divide no more and it is of utmost importance to the beer community that beer regain its rightful place next to wine in fancy restaurants with fancy foods, and maybe even fancy beers with cheap foods at middle range restaurants (like the ones I frequent, and presumably, you too). It’s not a divide; it shouldn’t be a divide. Both beverages provide something different to food that in the end, offers a different experience overall. Various fancy restaurants have caught on to this and are diving right in, trying new things, learning as much as possible, providing the best experience. While smaller middle range places have embraced it fully and made it a mainstay (Muddy Waters?), but it’s not as simply as a long beer list, it’s further and involves a knowledgeable staff and an extensive beer-friendly menu (and the desire to combine the two). Enough about that. Here’s a little bit about what happened:

I walked into the Kitchen Window in Calhoun Square in Uptown; I see it every day (well, hopefully every day) when I go the gym but thought it was nothing more than a ‘kitchen’ classroom learning area to excite people about the store and the available products. I mean, it is, but on that night, it was much more. The lights dimmed, and as I sipped on my ‘welcome beer,’ the mood changed. The Cicerone, Nicole, stopped by my table, asked me how I was doing and what my involvement was in the beer community. Stumbling on my words, afraid to say ‘beer blogger,’ I said very plainly ‘beer enthusiast.’ She smiled, almost a little too long, and said, ‘That’s great! I hope we have fun tonight,’ and walked away. She reminded me of the chemistry types I knew in college, very knowledgeable, a little awkward, with a deep passion for science and trying to explain things to me on an elementary level since I dropped chemistry freshman year. She had brown hair and glasses (not unlike myself, all of my female friends, and pretty much all the girls who graduated from Macaletser during my time; that was for dramatic effect, I don’t think she wore glasses, but I’d bet my life that she was wearing contacts, so the point still stands). I liked her, but I was nervous. I was one of three females in the room; it was me, her, and the wife of what I believe was a brewpub (current or future) owner, but she seemed more into the food. And then there was me, by far the youngest and most bright-eyed, taking notes in my ‘brew book,’ the sacred place I keep notes on my homebrews and beer-related things, not unlike my discarded chemistry lab journal.

She started with a brief powerpoint on the power of beer tasting and pairings. For most of us, this was the first time we’d gone to a beer tasting, much less one that provided dinner and discussion. So I think everyone was nervous (except for the owner of the Kitchen Window, who sat next to me taking notes on what I believe was the service and how things ran overall, rather than the content). All I could think was, ‘I wish I hadn’t had that beer at Republic before this… and those chips with guacamole.’ I was hungry, thirsty, full, and satisfied all at the same time. But most importantly, I was ready to learn.

First off, let me tell you, there is a lot of science to beer tasting, with discussions of phenols and esthers (I repeat, I stopped taking chemistry years ago). She glossed over it, knowing we were ready to roll up our sleeves and get our palettes wet. The most interesting aspect of the powerpoint was the explanation of how exactly food is paired with beer, either in contrast (also known as ‘cut’) and harmony (similar, I imagine to wine): it either complements or contrasts the food, drawing out certain elements of the beer and/or the food and making you taste them less or stronger. The next slide had a picture of Homer with a thought bubble above his head with a beer in it and he’s saying ‘mmm beer,’ and we began.

The first course was the aforementioned Caeser salad, paired with two different sour beers. The first, a complement, accenting the lemon and parmesan flavors, while the second was a contrast, accenting the breadiness of the croutons (which, interestingly enough, is the point of the croutons to begin with). I am both ashamed and proud to say that this was my first experience with a true Belgian lambic beer (the beer tasting was heaving in these, as she said, Nicole had a background in Belgian beers. How one gets a background in any one style of beer, I don’t know), and it was delicious. It was light, like champagne, but fuller like beer, and made the Caesar salad the best Caesar salad I’ve ever had (which could be in part because I’m not a big Caeser salad person). I decided not to finish the second beer, because these weren’t just 2oz pours, they were almost full beers (in fancy, style-appropriate glasses, mind you), and I had four more to go.

The main course, a margarita pizza made on an Egg grill (which is sweet, and they know it), was next. And this is where things got interesting and she started waxing poetic about beer tasting and the crux of why beer tasting is important, both as a beautiful and flawed art. Tasting is, in essence, subjective, described and experienced only by the taster, but the only way one can become a good taster is by tasting, listening, and sharing with other tasters and beer judges. This made me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, thinking that yes, yet again, beer is a social activity that will continue to be so, and relies so heavily on it to flourish. It is not relegated to the ivory tower of elite tasting and enjoying. Everyone tastes certain things better than others (and even master Cicerones have their weaknesses), and because of this, every taster (like every beer drinker) should be heard and respected.

“Close your eyes, smell it, taste it, swirl it in your mouth, experience the beer,” Nicole said. “It’s called ‘vision tasting,’ just let your mind and genetics be free. Talk to others, no one is wrong. They can taste something you can’t. Ask them what their mind came up with.” I was wondering when she was going to ask us to get out our crystals. But then I sort of got into it, letting my mind wander; I thought more about the pizza, the burnt crust and how it reminded me of the pizza we used to have at that one beach pizza place in Bali, until it got too commercial and busy. Mmmm, pizza.

Besides the hippie bullshit, I’m being constantly reminded that I’m being more of a woman than I’ve ever been, hyper aware of my every move, every deliberate pen stroke with my fancy pen in my fancy moleskin. I’m not finishing my beers, I’m not eating my pizza crusts. I’m just observing, writing, and progressively getting drunker. I have to pee. Then they bring out the cheesecake. I hate cheesecake. But I want to see what she’s talking about when she says the next beer is a Russian Imperial Stout which complements the chocolate crust. I used to say I greatly disliked this style, but I’m intrigued, and drink it all. “It’s like having coffee with dessert,” Nicole says, and I completely agree. It’s like the after-dinner coffee without the caffeine and it’s delicious. But then they switch gears and bring out a champagne flute of the fruitiest most delicious berry lambic beer I’ve had (note: I have not had many, I am talking about fruity beers in general). Again, my opinions about fruit beer have changed. I mean, I’m not going to drink it all the time, but there’s a time and place for these, and it was here and now (unlike Berryweiss). It added a deep raspberry accent to the cheesecake which completely blew me away after the previous coffee-like pairing. I wanted it all at the same time.

I downed the rest of my beer while chatting with the owner of the Kitchen Window. A homebrewer himself, this too was his first foray into tasting/pairing and he liked it. The question was, was it worth it for the Kitchen Window? They lost money on the event (despite the $60 everyone threw down), and was this their target audience? Maybe not. Compared to their usual class, there weren’t enough women. Not enough couples. Too many professionals who probably won’t shop at the Kitchen Window even after this positive experience. But that wasn’t the point of the event. It was to learn more about beer and how it can be further integrated into our lives through pairing while understanding why. Isn’t that the future of craft beer and homebrewing, to get more education and drink more (good) beer? Provide that, and the women and couples will come, because they too, are the final frontier of beer.