Will microbrew biz flatten out in 1997?

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But what if we run out here?

That’s the kind of nightmare that will wake you in a sweat-soaked fright, your throat parched with dread and your eyes spinning you dizzy with panic. No beer?

Sorry to begin the new year on such a downer, but that’s where all this pessimistic talk about the craft-brewing industry is leading. Some insiders believe there are too many labels, that delis and distributors don’t have enough room to carry the Big Dogs, Red Dogs, Ugly Dogs and all the other dogs. The theory for the past few months is that 1997 could be the year of the great shake-out, when some of the newcomers, over-leveraged and struggling for a piece of market share, succumb to the reality of finance and bite the dust.

Worse, according to this theory, Anheuser-Busch and the other big boys will continue to exert their pressure on the market, buying up micros and expanding their own specialty labels. Someday it’ll be 1978 again, when Bud and its clones are the only beer in town; in other words: a nightmare.

Between you and me, much of this vile talk is disinformation spread by disgruntled bartenders too bewildered to serve 30 different ales. These microbrew refusniks had it much easier when their customers’ biggest choice was mug or glass.

The optimist prefers to believe that beer-drinkers, having tasted fresh, locally made brews, will never go back to drinking swill. Maybe it’s not enough to sustain every micro forever (about one in seven currently goes belly-up), but don’t worry, beer fans – 1997 will not see any great industrywide collapse.

Nonetheless, this could be a make-or-break year for at least one local micro. The Northeast’s Independence Brewing Co. weathered a mixed year in ’96, severing ties with its Philadelphia wholesaler and cutting back on out-of-state distribution. Those were bad signs that had beer insiders fearing the worst for the 1 1/2-year-old firm. But the company got a big boost in the fall when head brewer Bill Moore took two medals at the Great American Beer Festival.

A large part of the company’s future rests on a public stock offering scheduled for the end of January, according to Tricia Pocock, a spokeswoman for Independence. She says they’re looking to use the funds for marketing and increased production. Independence, whose facility (1000 Comly St.) is open for tours on Saturdays, also has begun contract brewing for a couple of other firms.

If everything goes right, they’ll double their output and maybe even open a brewpub.

I’m pulling for them, not just because I happen to enjoy their unpasteurized ales, but because they’re big supporters of the Philly beer scene. “Everybody kind of works together in Philadelphia,” Pocock says. “We take the attitude that, if you’re not drinking Independence, we’d rather see you drinking a Gravity or a Yards than a Coors Light.”

The problem for small brewers, according to Red Bell Brewing Co. president Jim Bell, is “there’s really no brand loyalty in the micro industry.” Fans of craft brews like to try ’em all, switching from Victory one week to Red Hook the next.

So, Bell says, “the idea is to keep ahead of the game by introducing new, high-end products.”

Red Bell will do that this year with a new variety case that features some of its dark beers, including Vienna Lager, Black Cherry Stout and a malty, dark Scottish-style Wee Heavy. In a town that’s still hooked on light beers, the decision to go heavy might seem risky. Even Bell acknowledges that, at 8.5 percent alcohol, the Wee Heavy is for “virile beer connoisseurs only.”

But they love it at the CoreStates Center brewpub, and the pint I sampled last week at McGillin’s (1310 Drury St.) was the best thing I’ve tasted from Red Bell’s Brewerytown facility.

Likewise, Valley Forge Brewing Co. – which operates a brewpub in Devon (Gateway Shopping Center, off Route 202) – is concentrating on the dark stuff by bottling its Imperial Stout at the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre. Imperial Stout in a bottle – with its coffee-like body – might seem a surprising choice, but brewery boss David Biles, calls it “a no-brainer. First of all, it won a gold medal [at the GABF] and, secondly, it’s not a style that has a lot of competition.”

Biles isn’t worried about the contract-brewing brew-ha-ha, either. He and his brewmaster are personally handling production and he says Valley Forge’s bottles clearly state where it’s produced.

Meanwhile in Jersey, Flying Fish Brewing Co. is trying to latch on to Philly’s growing passion for Belgians with a new Abbey Double. So far it’s available only on tap, but Flying Fish chief janitor and president Gene Muller says he could have it bottled sometime this year.

That is, if he can master his state-of-the-art German bottling line. “Sometimes it’s like a scene out of an `I Love Lucy’ episode,” Muller says. “Those bottles keep coming and they don’t care if somebody’s not there to catch them.”


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