Not too long ago I had the opportunity to get together with Michael Wagner from the Four Firkins to talk about beer, breweries, and the beer industry. This is the second installment in my Four Firkins interview series and I hope to continue them over the next year or two. Talking with Michael was quite interesting, as he forms opinions based on his own love of craft beer as well as from a professional standpoint. Because of this some of his answers were a bit surprising to me!
We met at the Pig and Fiddle: the first time I had been to this fairly recent Southwest Minneapolis drinking hole. We sat at the corner of the bar and sipped Surly Diminished Seviin, drowning out the hubbub with talk of all things beer. Michael is one of the quieter members of the FF crew, but get him talking about beer and he is passionate and eloquent without being overly verbose. He hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania originally, with a move to West Virginia University for college. After finishing his schooling he took a corporate job (or a series of them) that led to North Carolina, Cleveland, and even Detroit, before getting the opportunity to move to our wonderful state of Minnesota. Once here, he transitioned out of his corporate gig and took a job as a buyer for Trader Joe's before ending up replacing the third employee at The Four Firkins.
When asked about his current job title he brings out an incredible mouthful that hearkens back to The Office: Upper Midwest Regional Manager of Strategic Imbibing and Director of Synergy Tactics: Beer to Mouth. A most impressive and very tongue-in-cheek title if ever I've heard one before! In truth Michael wears many hats at the store (especially on Fancy Friday) such as sales manager, in and out of store event organization, and most of the social promotion such as website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Now knowing more about Michael and what he does at the store, I had to get more information about how he got into craft beer to such an extent that he would end up making a career out of it! "Growing up in Pittsburgh we had access to decent regional beer like Rolling Rock, Yuengling, and Iron City, so I never really got into the national Macros," He comments. In college he and a like-minded buddy started to explore other craft options such as Troegs Troegenator or Victory Hop Devil. Michael says that even early on he was always interested in local craft products like cheeses, art and of course--once discovered--beer. A trip to Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Amsterdam) on a Man-cation with a friend, he returned to the states with the desire to homebrew and perhaps get into the beer industry. And so he has!
Asked about his favorite type of beer, he paused for a long step, clearly pondering this difficult question with much intent. "I tend to drink seasonally," he started, "drinking specific beer styles suited to the season they are brewed." Also he learned from Sir Lanny Hoff that there are exceptional beers for certain situations. Being less general he enjoys Belgian beers pretty much across the board, but especially saisons, sours and dark, fruity quads. Additionally he is a sucker for a well done English bitter served appropriately out of a cask. Specifically one of his favorite local beers is Town Hall's Masala Mama served on cask, (also one of my favorites!)
In the same vein, I wanted to know if there were any up-and-coming breweries that he was excited about. Keep in mind that as a professional he shouldn't play favorites, however as a consumer and beer lover he does have some thoughts on the subject. In the Midwest he points out Toppling Goliath out of Decorah, Iowa as a newer brewery that is really taking off. In his words, "Their use of Citra hops is glorious!" Hopefully we'll be getting them in Minnesota soon. Another favorite is Stillwater Artisanal, a Mikeller-like company based out of Maryland putting out a lot of unique and small batch beers. Locally he gives props to many local breweries like Surly, Indeed, Summit and Schells. He specifically points out how Steel Toe Brewing embodies the small local brewery ideal by bringing a lot of experience to the table and putting out consistently great beers.
I certainly have my favorite beer events, but was interested in hearing his take the subject. He enjoys Autumn Brew Review as a tried and true local tradition, but seems to like Winterfest even more based on the intimate setting, limitation to Minnesota beers, and the presence of food. I agree entirely! As a previous resident of Pennsylvania, he points out Philly Beer Week as an event not to be missed. They are top notch and the event really involves much of the city. Of course Oktoberfest in Germany is at the top of the list--not as a craft beer event, but as a beer experience. "Think Minnesota State Fair with airplane hanger sized beer tents..." Oh I'm thinking about it right now!
Surly Darkness Day also gets some love as one of the best run limited release parties around. "This event really brings out the best of the social aspect of beer and sharing," he comments.
Speaking of limited release beers, I asked Michael what he thought of this trend in the industry. As with most people I've talked to about the subject, he has mixed feelings on it. The releases are sometimes blown out of proportion based on rarity and not quality, and also sometimes encourages the hoarder mentality that can turn others off from the process. As a seller of beer, he notes that there is often a flurry of activity around the brewery's other beers at the time of these releases, as well as an increase in discussion of them and beer in general in the community. "Being in the business of supplying consumers with what they want, these small releases can make that hard to do. At the Four Firkins we try to spread the love as much as is possible." Another potential issue with the process from a seller's standpoint is how those beers are distributed among stores. Ideally the best breweries (often though the decision is made by a distributor) will allocate an amount of the limited beer based on how much of the mainline products that store sells--in essence rewarding that store for being a good seller of the brand's beer. When this doesn't happen, more places get the beer, but in such miniscule amounts that the hassle of dealing with it isn't really worth it. He would not tell me which distributors were the trouble-makers, but they know who they are!
Finally, I wanted to pick Michael's beer-marinated brain for his take on beer trends in general over the last few years and into the future. Apparently the Four Firkins recently taught a class on the history of American craft beer so he had a lot of information for me. I'm sorry I missed that one. He mentioned micro-trends that seem to change constantly, such as "new" or trendy ingredients like Citra hops and rye in beers. "4-5 years ago we saw the rise of Black IPA/Cascadia Dark Ale, but that seems to have settled into a less hyped American Black Ale with a lot of variability in the style." Session beers are certainly gaining in popularity recently as well. Long term, Michael feels that barrel aging and small batch beers will continue to fill a niche market. He notes that a lot of focus is coming on local beer and ingredients recently and is likely to continue as our local breweries push the boundaries of the craft.