Imagine you’re the leadership team of Modern Times Beer, a San Diego brewery that has become a standout in a great beer city since it was founded in 2013. It’s a decidedly modern take on a brewery, with four taprooms outside its home market — as distant as Portland, Oregon — and a coffee roasting operation.
But you want to sell beer in Wisconsin, 2,000-plus miles away. How do you get noticed by people who may not know about your strong reputation and who might prefer a beer made 2,000 feet away?
First, let’s acknowledge Modern Times’ labels here. They’re beautiful: simple, colorful and unmistakable. They’re going to catch your eye in the cooler.
But the novelty of a good look wears off if a beer is always just there. So instead, Modern Times will arrive, then disappear, then arrive again, and dry up again. Each time the beer is back, the thinking goes, the juice of being something new returns.
In the biz it’s called “market pulses,” said Dave Cartwright, craft manager at the brewery’s Wisconsin distributor, New Berlin-based Beechwood Sales & Service.
Orders for Modern Times’ Wisconsin debut were taken in June, and the beer was delivered in a single drop in August. That beer will be fully sold through before the cycle repeats. “When it’s gone it’s gone,” Cartwright said.
The plan is for another drop to arrive on local shelves in late November or early December, and perhaps two to three times more next year.
For the brewery, it’s a way of growing at a sustainable pace in new markets, staying fresh — both literally and in the perception sense — and gauging the market. “They can kind of test the waters and kind of splash some beer out there,” Cartwright said. “If it becomes a situation where the demand is such that it makes sense to launch full time, then they can and they have a built-in following and brand equity.”
Cartwright believes this playbook will become more common, noting it’s already being followed in Wisconsin by breweries including Maine Beer (a brewery I fell in love with during my 2013 honeymoon). Chicago’s Half Acre Beer dabbled in Wisconsin for a stretch before launching full time in 2017 — and currently does market pulses to New York City and Philadelphia.
Other irregular distribution models are becoming more and more regular. In July, Equilibrium Brewing, a New York brewery adored by fans of hazy hops, held pop-up can sales and tap takeovers in Milwaukee and at BarleyPop in Madison. From closer to home, Milwaukee hazesmiths Eagle Park Brewing held Madison pop-up sales in May and July and plan on doing more after opening its big new production brewery next year. Eagle Park sells beer almost exclusively from its taproom, and its owners believe they’ll be able to keep their fermentation tanks turning over without embracing traditional distribution channels.
These are the, ahem, modern times in the craft beer business — what Cartwright called a “volatile environment.”
“The brand life cycle has shortened up tremendously,” Cartwright said, noting the Brewers Association’s midyear count of nearly 7,500 breweries, with permits indicating another 2,500 to 3,000 on the way soon. “There’s new ones coming every day. That’s a very challenging environment for breweries. How do you keep yourself relevant in the marketplace? Especially if you’re not necessarily in your own backyard. We’ve seen it with a lot of the large national brands. They’re kind of struggling to hold serve here.”
Modern Times’ first Wisconsin toe in the market went over very well, he said. Sales were particularly strong in Madison.
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OK, enough business stuff, right? Let’s get to the actual beer!
Modern Times describes its portfolio as “aroma-driven, complex, flavorful, sessionish beers,” and that’s … mostly on the nose for its first Wisconsin shipment of its four-packs of handsome 16-ounce tallboys. (Disclosure: Beechwood hooked me up with some samples.)
In it were four hop-forward beers: Fortunate Islands, a tropical pale ale; Blazing World, which is labeled as a “dank” amber but drinks more like a just-barely-red IPA; Orderville, an IPA loaded with Mosaic hops, also dank; and summer seasonal Critical Band, a tropical, modestly hazy IPA.
Subtlety was the surprising theme running through all these beers as I sampled them. If fellow San Diegan Stone Brewing takes the heavy metal approach to hoppy beers, Modern Times brings smooth jazz. One way to interpret lack of oomph is brewer’s intent; restraint is a rare attribute in hop-forward brewing these days. It’s also possible that these beers had more oomph at birth and were showing the seven weeks of age they accumulated before I got to them. Most of the beers in the Wisconsin drop were packaged in early July.
Modern Times’ two takes on the gose — a barely tart, slightly salty wheat ale of German origin — hit home more squarely. Year-round Fruitlands is spiked with passionfruit and guava, and seasonal Fruitlands: Rosé Edition particularly pops, with its cherry, raspberry, cranberry and lemon additions singing together in a happy harmony.
If all those beers are round pegs, my favorite Modern Times beer of this bunch is the square peg.
Style: Coffee stout
What it’s like: Unadulterated coffee stout sure seems like a style on the wane these days as brewers seem to prefer dropping their java creations in bourbon barrels and/or spiking them with vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate. This is not a complaint — those are often very tasty beers. New Glarus has a good one that last dropped in 2018.
Booze factor: Stouts have big-time ABV creep these days, but Black House weighs in at a downright reasonable 5.8%.
Up close: Stouts, in their sleek black, are really pretty beers, and Black House wafts that deep roast that coffee and stout drinkers alike seek out. With a sip that roast pops further, and it’s hard to separate the roast of the beans — 75% Ethiopian, 25% Sumatran — from the roast of the malt. Coffee, malt and hops mingle indistinguishably and pleasantly. Not every stout has a big, full mouthfeel, and Modern Times’ emphasis on drinkability is evident in the medium body, fluffed up by the oatmeal in the mash. One complaint: The carbonation was very light, bordering on flat. But if there’s such a thing as a session coffee stout, and there should be, this is it.
Bottom line: 3.5 stars