Corner a long-time craft brewer on a dark, stormy night and you might get him to tell a legend full of morals and terror: the craft beer bust of the late 90s. The chilling tale usually begins with a discussion of how incredibly well craft brews were doing before that time -- an intro that's backed up by data from the Brewer's Association, which shows craft beer growth from 1986 to 1995 ranged from a low of 29 percent to a high of 75 percent year-over-year. But then: DISASTER! A wave of charlatans, covetous of craft beer's success, began entering the fray. Fueled by greed, they created soulless brands and boring liquids that the public spurned, and growth plummeted from 58 percent in '95, to 26 percent in '96, to just 2 percent in '97. The bubble had burst.
While the market has recovered somewhat -- the volume of craft beer produced in 2014 rose 18 percent from the previous year -- the ominous tale of craft beer's first bust is popular among today's craft brewers because they know their industry is still very fragile. Craft beer accounts for just 11 percent of all beer sold in the United States. Brewers recognize that new customers are hard-won, and that if their first experience branching out and tasting a craft beer is a bad one, they'll go right back to drinking mass-produced light lager. Forever. So they shun those who seem to be starting breweries to take advantage of a trend and make a quick buck, and they've done a fairly good job of keeping these types from entering the marketplace. But a new controversy has arisen to burst craft beer's bubble.
"Quality, quality, quality," Steve McFate, owner of Fate Brewing Co. in Scottsdale, said at a roundtable discussion held during Arizona Craft Beer Week. I had just asked him what he'd change about the industry, if given the chance. "At the Craft Brewer's Conference this past year," he said, "one of the keynote speakers from the Brewers Association made a very poignant comment. Based on the amount of growth in craft beer and the numbers of new breweries opening, unless they're making good beer, it'll be a challenge for our industry to grow. To quote him, he said, 'Don't fuck it up.' There will obviously be a learning curve as new breweries get up and running, but it's really a matter of achieving quality and maintaining quality."
Today, established craft brewers don't fear the seedy characters looking to ride craft beer's coattails. They fear the bright-eyed, optimistic homebrewers looking to turn their hobby into a profession. They fear amateurs who get their hands on professional equipment and start churning out beers without realizing they really don't know what the hell they're doing.
Which brings us to Dubina Brewing Co. Opened August 2014 in Glendale and funded via Kickstarter, the brewery's headed by Jared Dubina, part of a family with deep Czech heritage -- there's actually a small town called Dubina in the Czech Republic. Playing off the family roots, Jared and his father James opened a brewery they felt would "bring a European and Czech feel to the Valley's brewery scene."
Tasting Dubina's beers is less like drinking at a European beer hall and more like being selected to judge an impromptu homebrew competition. Some of the beers are very well done; some are repulsive.
We'll start with the good stuff. Dubina Ale, a 6.7-percent ABV brown ale, is on the lighter side for the style, but has enough character to be interesting. The aroma leads with grassy, slightly citrusy Liberty hops backed by a pronounced nuttiness. The flavor mirrors the aroma with soft nuttiness and a smack of hops in a light, quaffable body. It's benign; a good brew to drink while you're mind's on something else. The 7.3-percent Bell Road IPA is actually quite good, shimmering in translucent gold while giving off aromas of fresh and old oranges, caramel popcorn and bright lemon peel. The flavor is more straightforwardly citrusy, leading with sweet orange, cotton candy and some tropical mango tones before a resin-and-honey finish. Arrowhead IPA, the brewery's imperial hoppy offering, was also pleasant.
Then we have the questionables. Wee Little Pale -- labeled on menus as a pale ale -- has more in common with a Kolsch or light blonde ale than it does this hoppy style. Subtle notes of apple, saltine crackers and a mild earthiness can be picked up before a crisp Pilsner malt finish. If this is a pale ale, it's really, really pale. The problems with the Nitrella Milk Stout, an imperial stout with Nutella brewed in collaboration with Peoria Artisan Brewery, are more numerous. First is the gas -- the beer, which is supposedly nitrogenated (a'la Guinness) arrives topped with small, soapy bubbles and none of the dense, creamy head a nitro pour is supposed to create. Second is the booze, which overpowers the underlying flavors of hazelnut, molasses, toast, chocolate, vanilla and graham cracker.
And then there are the beers that should've been poured down the brewery's drains, rather than into glasses. Dubina's What Gose Up? is a 5.5-percent ABV version of a style called Gose, traditionally sour in flavor and brewed with sea salt. Dubina's version is neither salty nor sour, exhibiting instead an overpowering buttery flavor that any brewer would recognize as diacetyl, a flavor compound produced by yeast that's considered an unacceptable defect in all but a few beer styles, Gose not being one of them. The Dubina Barley Wine, too, is a heinous concoction -- 14.2 vicious percentage points of ABV in a beer so cloyingly sweet you'll get a hangover before you finish the glass. Both the flavor and aroma reek with nail polish remover, another defect common in homebrewed beers, on top of a mish-mash of reduced orange juice, honey, apricots and rancid butter. It's a complete mess of a beer.
Quality, quality, quality. It's a hard thing to do, starting a brewery. Even harder is to pour a batch of beer -- sweated and obsessed over but simply bad -- down the drain. But these are the things that must be done if the industry is going to continue its growth. Any person attempting to make it in craft beer has to understand the impact his or her beers can have. One bad batch goes out and dozens of tentative drinkers could be turned off craft, forever. Cause enough people to reject craft beer, and that's how bubbles burst.
These are important times for craft brewers, Dubina. Don't fuck it up.