The Anti-Craft of Letherbee Distillers

  The Anti-Craft of Letherbee Distillers Interviewed by Calvin Fredrickson Brewers use the phrase “craft beer” to connote authenticity and quality. In recent years, other uses for the craft tag have been popularized. Craft coffee. Craft pizza. Craft cocktails. But you seem to resist that tag, and you’ve gone on record as calling Letherbee “anti-craft spirit craft spirit.” What do you mean by that? “Anti-craft” is definitely a reaction to the spirits industry specifically. The world of craft spirits has quickly become so formulaic and standardized that “craft” has essentially become a meaningless buzzword. There’s a cookie-cutter effect ingrained in the business model of most new distilleries that does not conjure innovation or craftsmanship nearly as much as it fosters marketing plans, ROI, investor relations, brand building, etc. Big business (corporate) methods and philosophies are prioritized over craftsmanship and it’s all disguised as “craft” to get the enthusiastic consumers to buy. It’s a race to scale up as quickly as possible to attract a buyout or further capital investment. You have to also understand that the spirits world has less integrity than the beer world. We not only have to deal with brand reps and bartenders whose opinions are bought and sold, we also have to deal with marketing companies that simply source bulk spirits and sell it in shamefully misleading ways to convince the consumer that it’s being made at a distillery like mine. Can you imagine a local brewery buying bulk beer from A-B [Anheuser-Busch], then packaging it in their own bombers, and selling it as though it was a special craft beer? The brewers would be outraged! Violence would ensue! But in my world this is considered sound business. I think you’re starting to get the picture… I often ask myself, “Where are all the honest weirdos?” So, I envy the beer scene. How else have you seen craft movement appropriated? For good or for ill? Or are you Indifferent? I see it everywhere.  “Craft” seems to have found it’s way into pop culture. It’s ubiquitous, so I find myself indifferent.  But don’t get me wrong – I’m very grateful that it’s a movement.  I just hope it’s a sign that consumers have deeply become more curious and thoughtful. Constellation, A-B InBev, and other Beer Big Dogs have shown interest in successful, independent brands for their profitability and fervent fan base. Each month brings news of another buyout, joint venture, or consolidation, with the Big Dogs usually buying some part of the Little Dogs – and that’s got consumers worried. From a spirits side, how important is distillery/brand ownership to your average spirit or cocktail enthusiast? It’s building more and more. But the spirits fans have been slower to respond to craft spirits because most people drink whiskey, and most craft whiskey is not as good as the big brands. Look, your whiskey might be crafty as fuck, but it’s a crafty turd aged for a short time in small barrels and you are lucky people are so generous to support you by spending far too much money on your well-marketed turd. Imagine how slow the craft beer movement would have been if nobody could make better beer than A-B! The spirits world did not have the same quality vacuum that beer has had. So, new start-ups catching up to the value and quality of America’s Bourbon industry is no small feat. It will take a generation’s time and lots of capital. Keep your eye on Whiskey Acres in Dekalb, IL. If anyone has a chance, they do. Does distillery independence matter to you? Absolutely. The value that’s slowly been built into my brand is partly due to the fact that I don’t have to answer to anybody. Not one person. I’m sure you, at Spiteful Brewing, understand this. Our ideas don’t get watered down by other people who have input in the process. And we certainly don’t have investors to consider when we want to make horrible decisions! Another concern for beer enthusiasts is origin of liquid: “was this made by the brewery themselves, on their premises?” As a result, contract-brewed beer has long bore a stigma for critical drinkers, often on principle, a stigma with little regard for the liquid itself. Do you sympathize with that unease over contract scenarios?  I personally don’t like all the contracting stuff. But I envy the gypsy brewers. They live the dream, don’t they? I prefer the Spiteful model. It’s the same as the Letherbee model. It’s obviously much more authentic to build a little tiny production space in the basement of a shitty factory building. And this authenticity is the hot knife that cuts through the shit-butter of “craft” marketing. But does origin matter so long as the liquid’s good and the marketing is honest? Marketing honesty is the most important thing to me. Making delicious product is becoming easier and easier. Some asshole can make delicious beer but I won’t drink it more than once if he/she is an asshole. The rest of the story has to add up. I have much fewer reservations about drinking someone’s branded MGP [Midwest Grain Products Ingredients, formerly LDI] whiskey when they’re completely honest that it’s MGP-sourced. Tell me there isn’t dishonest marketing in the world of spirits! There’s actually more deception than honesty. It’s disgusting. People are sick. It trickles all the way down the supply chain, and the brand reps and bartenders that get their pockets lined are happy to perpetuate the deception. They’re all too shortsighted to understand that this behavior actually degrades their reputations and future possibilities as individuals. Craft beer consumers are more critical than ever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Drinkers want to know what, if any, ulterior interests exist, and they are quick to abandon ship if they sense inauthenticity. Since craft beer consumers have so many options, brand loyalty takes a different form than, say, a macro beer drinker who drinks one brand for life. Craft beer drinkers drink hundreds of brands in a year and may feel affinity…

What It’s Worth: Rare Bourbon County Stout

What It’s Worth: Rare Bourbon County Stout By Chris Quinn   What is a beer worth? This is a question that gets raised increasingly more often as craft beer continues its meteoric growth. Is it simply the sum of its parts, no more than the combined costs of the raw materials, packaging, labor, plus a little something, you know, for the effort? Or is it something that, when done well, should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest fermented beverages from Piedmont and Bordeaux? In short, we don’t know.   So, as we [Beer Temple Insiders Roundtable] look for the answer to this question, we believe it is important to first inform ourselves on how beer arrives at its commodity pricing before we begin to divorce from it and enter a pricing model that takes intangible things (rarity, exclusivity, brand recognition) into account.   For the subject of our experiment, we chose Goose Island’s Rare Bourbon County Stout, which was recently re-released with much anticipation after a five-year hiatus. Derived from 35-year old Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, Rare brings much trepidation with its $60 price tag for a single 16.9-ounce bottle. What went into pricing this beer, or for that matter, any beer?   We received insight from experts in many fields to arrive at the numbers below. Some were hard numbers, some were very educated estimates, and some were pieced together through context clues. What we have is by no means the exact cost but our best estimate, which we wholeheartedly stand behind. We have decided not to include “soft costs” such as advertising and marketing campaigns, which, in addition to being impossible to accurately determine, is separate from what the beer actually is and cost to make. You can easily spend tens of millions of dollars on some of the cheapest beers in the world, as any time spent in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon will quickly prove.   The chart below is not only an attempt to determine what the costs of a craft beer are, but what values talent, knowledge, and expertise have as well. Craft beer has long differentiated itself from other alcoholic beverages not only through flavor but also through a guiding ethos of community. In keeping with this tradition, and the unspoken trust between producer, purveyor, and consumer that goes along with it, we felt that the findings of this experiment should be shared with all beer lovers so that we can all learn from it, and hopefully come a few steps closer to finding our own answer to the question “What is a beer worth?”   A note about opportunity cost: As a public company, AB InBev has a responsibility to its shareholders. Whether that is maximizing profits, maximizing shareholder value, setting up the company for future growth, or anything else, AB InBev needs to do what is in the best interest of their company.  Even if brewing Rare is not the most profitable use of all of AB InBev’s resources, they have made the decision that it is in the best interest of the company and therefore we have decided that opportunity costs should not come into pay when evaluating Rare. Overall Costs Packaging: $8.72 Rent: $0.24 Utilities: $0.12 Liquid: $1.30 Warehouse improvements, storage tanks, transportation: $0.05 Labor: $0.70 5% Misc.: $0.56 Total: $11.69     Packaging: Glass bottle:              $0.50 Label:                         $0.05 Crown cap:                $0.02 Box:                            $8.00 Total:                           $8.57   Liquid: Barley/Hops:             $0.49 Yeast:                         $0.20 Barrel:                         $0.59 Water:                                    $0.02 Total:                           $1.30  

On Beers I’ve Drank: From Busch Light to Oberon

  On Beers I’ve Drank: From Busch Light to Oberon By: Karl Klockars   Everyone has a “first beer” story, here’s mine:   A can of Miller Genuine Draft, pilfered from a cooler in a garage on New Year’s Eve 1994, split between four young gentlemen in the Chicago suburbs. Our unrefined palates not accustomed to the flavors of malt and alcohol, it probably took us 90 minutes to kill that can amongst the four of us, so long that the three ounces we each sipped had next to no effect on our teenage brains.   We stayed up until 4AM that night, probably talking about Slayer, girls and golf clubs – my high school friends were a weird mix of metalheads, caddies and metalhead caddies. I don’t remember much else about that particular holiday other than that one single beer took on a significant symbolism to it. I didn’t have a ton of friends, being the kid dumped from small Catholic grade school into big, bad public high school, but when the 36-year-old me looks back on that 14 year-old-me, he sees someone taking baby steps into a form of acceptance that took place over the rim of a can of Miller.   I can honestly still remember how it tastes.   Everyone has a beer confession, here’s mine:   I drank Busch Light for a long time. It was less a beer of choice than it was a beer of necessity, being cheap, readily available thirty cans at a time. It was also a beer for the marathon drinking one does right out of college when you live in what is essentially a hovel with your ne’er-do-well punk rock friends and union worker buddies.   It was another symbol in a can: we ain’t no fancy Miller Lite drinkin’ fellers, we don’t have extra cash to spend on no fancy bottles of Budweiser, we are separate, we are unique, we are a band of brothers. We drank Busch Light aggressively, we freely shared our cases and 30-packs among friends and strangers like we were a commune, and we wore the pain it induced like a cold-filtered badge of honor.   I find myself in a rural bar a few times a year, or a college bar, or just some place where the upper-scale choices range from “bottle of Heineken” to “last Pete’s Wicked known to man.” Invariably, I am more than happy to pass two one dollar bills across the bar for a bottle or can of watery, corny, blue-labeled bliss in a can. I know what I’m doing. I’m a pro. I drink Busch. I drink Busch Light.   And I’m not just drinking a cheap beer in a can because it’s ironic or because it’s amusing ­– I drink it because part of me still thinks I can be that kid that still fits in those cutoff camo shorts and drives a 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham that probably isn’t going to pass emissions and stays up until the bakery next door opens at 5am.   At least, it’s a reminder that he existed at one point.   Everyone has a gateway craft beer story*.   Fairly new to actual city life, I had taken myself out of the garages and bowling alleys I had frequented in the suburbs to live with the girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. At that time I had moved on to a mix of High Life and 22-ounce bottles of Olde English 800, with the occasional draft Old Style. You know, for variety’s sake.   She took a job waiting tables and went to grad school while I dropped in and out of school, internships and eventually settled on the crazy hours and low pay of a radio gig. And on some Saturdays, I would wait at Simon’s Tavern, in Andersonville, waiting for her to get done with a brunch shift so we could walk home together.   I remember it being late spring, I remember the bar being that special shade of dark you can only accomplish in a bar and I remember watching whatever baseball game was on the television. And in front of me was the first craft beer I learned to love: Bell’s Oberon.   I didn’t know what it was, really, but I knew it was something good. I knew it was different, and I knew it was beer from Michigan, where my girl was from, and if I couldn’t be with her until her shift was up, at least I could drink a beer that came roughly from the same place she did. It was one of her favorites, so it became one of my favorites. And we would watch the Sox play the Tigers, the first games of many, and we would order Oberons. Even in the midst of school and low-paying jobs and insane hours, we would always have a few bucks for Oberons, and we would always find time for each other.   (And when Larry Bell pulled Bell’s out of Illinois for a brief period of time, I learned my first lesson about distribution rights and the three-tier system.)   Three different beers. Three different versions of myself.   The larger story of beer is the story of civilization itself, the story of communities, the birth of gatherer life, of religion and culture and indulgence. I often hear the Lagunitas team talk about not being in the beer business, but being in the tribe-building business. Whenever I hear that repeated, I always think, “But it’s the exact same thing.”   Beer is a unique thing – it’s an industrial product, but endlessly creative, historically associated in this country with a particular demographic, a particular class, a particular stripe of American. Hell, a very particular stripe of Chicagoan. I appreciate it, all the things it takes to make a simple product that gives many of us a simple pleasure, because it’s just so very us. The beer world around us has…

Mash Tun x Insiders Roundtable: 
Issue 008 Release + Live Radio Show

December 10th •  7-11pm • Free! •  21+ Co-Prosperity Sphere • 3219 S Morgan St Join Mash Tun and the Beer Temple’s Insider’s Roundtable for the release of issue 8 of Mash Tun Journal. We will be hosting a bottle share and producing a live studio broadcast and taping of the Insider’s Roundtable show. Special guests include brewers featured in the brand spanking new issue # 8  of Mash Tun Journal. We will supply some of the beers made by the brewers and breweries featured. It’s a bottle share! Bring some! And please wear your ugly holiday sweater. This is a Mash Tun Society event. Please RSVP at So we can make sure we have enough vittles..


December 2015
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