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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mass Market Lagers

Note: Post has been updated.


As you may have guessed from my most recent brewery tour, I'm working on a portion of the book involving what we variously call "macro" lagers.  Nomenclature and taxonomy are interesting here.  For some reason, people have felt it necessary to make separate categories for a ton of beers that consumers think of as one continuum--examples like Budweiser, Bud Light, Singha, Foster's, Stella Artois, Kirin, Pacifico, and so on.  Most countries have these beers, and the similarities far outweigh the differences.  Yet distinguish people do.

Here's how the BJCP does it:
  • "Lite" American lagers (why does the BJCP use that spelling?)
  • Standard American lagers
  • Premium American lagers
  • Helles
  • Dortmund export
For reference, Kirin would be a "standard American Lager," while Singha would be a premium.  Clear?

BeerAdvocate, which speaks for the mind of the beer geek, does it this way:
  • American Adjunct Lager 
  • American Malt Liquor 
  • American Pale Lager 
  • Light Lager
By their lights, Budweiser is an adjunct lager while Kirin (also made with rice) is an American pale lager.

In my book, I have decided to dispense with these categories.  There's something supremely bizarre about using American brewing and its attendant prejudices to conceptualize style.  It's just silly to call a Japanese lager made with rice an "American lager" (standard or pale) while Budweiser, an American lager made with rice, is an adjunct or "premium" lager.  Those divisions of standard and premium (along with super-premium) are marketing artifacts of the pre-craft brewing era that the large American companies used to distinguish between pretty well indistinguishable beers.

The beer geek framework is equally dubious.  "Adjunct" is propaganda, too.  It's what the Brewers Association used to distinguish their membership from the big companies--more marketing--but it's ahistorical and misleading.  There's nothing wrong with adjuncts.  In saisons, the beer geeks' beer, we celebrate them.  But in our own indigenous beers, where corn and rice are as American an expression as invert sugar is in English brewing, they are somehow the stain of shame. Don't buy the hype.

The story of how there came to be mass-market beer is much like the stories of how there came to be mass-market everything: the industrial revolution made it possible to mass-produce beer, which led to mass marketing and mass distribution, the practices of standardization and preservation. In this way, beer isn’t much different from meat or bread or cheese. The development of mass markets make it possible to manufacture and distribute a product cheaply, putting it in front of the largest number of people possible. Tailoring products for huge populations, in beer as much as other product categories, necessarily meant appealing to the center of the bell curve, where most people’s tastes congregate. When made to serve the median palate, products lose their thorns and idiosyncracies and become a more generic, bland version of the thing. More or less, that was the story of the 20th century in beer just as much as it was in other products.

Kirin reflects the mass tastes of Japan the way Budweiser reflects the mass tastes of the US and Singha the mass tastes of Thailand.  To try to distinguish these in terms of their taxonomy misses the forest for the trees.  To add a moral component by focusing on ingredients is also a matter of putting on blinders.  These are a category because they evolved to appeal to the largest group in a population.  That's what distinguishes them.  There are a few wrinkles we can argue over, like light beer and malt liquor, but I'm defaulting to "mass market lagers" when I can see no other reason to try to sort beers like Singha, Budweiser, and Foster's.


Update.  In a case of synchronicity, Pete Brown has posted a fascinating video illustrating my point.   For what it's worth, my own experience at Budweiser was completely different.  In several hours of my tour, the only question anyone dodged was about future projects--which isn't actually a dodge, but prudence.  I would use the video to illustrate the nature of the product, not the perfidy of the makers.  Had the filmmaker been speaking to a brewer, this would have been a very different video.

8 comments:

BrewingMama said...

It's been a year and a half since I left AB, but I thought just before I left in 2011, we changed the Kirin recipe to All Malt. Due to piping configurations at the LA brewery (where US Kirin was produced exclusively until Williamsburg took some of the volume), we had to do some fancy pumpovers to mix in the adjunct in the malt in the "Kirin Way". However, when Kirin changed the recipe to All Malt the mashing process got significantly easier.

Don't even get me started on the Kirin yeast propagation and pitching scheme. That was beast.

Jeff Alworth said...

BrewingMama, thanks for the update. These kinds of details are important because they show how difficult it is to even keep track of this stuff--in beer where the change is so modest consumers won't even notice. If US Kirin and Japanese Kirin are making beer differently, it would be fascinating to see how the BJCP would respond. Different categories. That'd be beautiful.

Doug Sottoway said...

Thanks for the summary on mass market everything. Certainly applies well to beer and not an intentionally evil act. I'm thankful we can now afford to go beyond, especially with local beer available across country (once again). Also good point on categories, i.e., do we really need the qualifier "American" for the 3 different lagers? I'd say no.

Christopher Grzan said...

A lot of those points are quite resonant (especially the one about adjuncts. I mean, if anyone out there is still parroting the BA about how the use of corn should be frowned upon, really, get over yourself).

The only observation I would make here is your comment at the end about Pete's video, and how the video would be different if the subject of it were a brewer. I agree with you. But brewers are not tasked with selling the beer. People such as Jean-Jacques Velkeniers are. And the ways in which people such as he refer to and present their products speak volumes about how those within the company walls likely think of it.

Anonymous said...

I've always assumed that the proliferation of beer styles was connected with competition awards, which are in turn connected with entry fees. The more styles, the more chances of winning an award, the more reason to entire the competition.

Jeff Alworth said...

Christopher, I don't mean to suggest the video's not fair. (Though based on what we know about human senses and their amazing abilities to muff tastings in wine studies and others, you could make that case.) My point is that the beer is distinguishable by people in the company.

I actually had the opportunity to sit in on the Friday taste panel at AB. It's when they get Budweisers from all 20 North American breweries and taste them. The idea is that they should all taste identical, but they don't--at least to the "key tasters" (ie, super-badasses) who sit on the panel. I dutifully sampled every beer there and they all tasted identical to my inexpert palate, except for three. But then they mentioned that there were actually three other beers in the sample as controls, which dulled my triumph.

Anyway...

Bill Schneller said...

"There's something supremely bizarre about using American brewing and its attendant prejudices to conceptualize style."

This summarizes my complaint with the BJCP (even though I'm an active participant in the organization. The BJCP definitions have gotten better with time, but they still classify everything from a US-centric point of view (hence why there's only one Czech lager recognized, why Alt and Koelsch are classified as "ales" and not as top fermented lagers, etc.). We need to be cognizant that a lot of styles are seen differently in their native countries.

James said...

I think the most interesting thing about Mass Lagers is not that they are indistinguishable, but the degree to which drinkers are loyal to a specific brand. A rational thinker choosing between different lagers would just choose the cheapest option, but marketing has fooled people into believing that one is greatly superior to the rest. The fact that they are nearly indistinguishable is quite obvious to beer geeks. What I'm interested in is how this allegiance is formed in a person's brain. I'm guessing the main contributors besides good marketing is your peers, availability, familiarity (arbitrary habits), what you started drinking, what you drank at most important period of your life, etc. Anyways, a topic worth exploring....

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