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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Schwag and the Rise of the Micro Macros

At my Bailey's stop, I eschewed all the beers I would normally try--hoppy, rare, exotic, etc.--for Ninkasi Schwag, the latest experiment in a craft-brewed light lager. It follows the now roaringly-successful Full Sail Session and a spate of summertime brewpub offerings; it's not exactly Busch Lite, but at 10 IBUs, it ain't exactly Total Domination, either.

A number of questions arise: why are breweries bothering?; who's drinking this stuff?; is it any good?; does this signal the end of civilization? All worthy of response, and I shall come to them in due time. But first, let's review why these damnable beers exist in the first place.

The narrative, bits of which are probably apocryphal, goes like this: in the early 1900s, beer was good. Brewing was a regional craft, and the diversity of styles and quality mirrored that of Europe. In 1910, there were 1,568 breweries in the US. Then came prohibition, which landed a sucker-punch to the industry's breadbasket. When brewing was back again in 1934, only 756 breweries remained. Thus did consolidation and the loss of styles really begin to change American beer.

With canning (1935), refrigerated trucking, the loss of male drinkers (1941-'45), and the industrialization of brewing, beer became a commodity, not a craft. Consolidation followed precipitously: in 1950 there were just 407 breweries; in 1961, just 230 (140 independent). By the end of the 70s, there were 51 companies operating 80 breweries. Throughout this entire period, the number of styles decreased, and the remaining dominant style became weaker and less flavorful. There is now so little hop bitterness in a can of Bud that it is imperceptable.

But joy--the market works! Into this void stepped people of vision who foresaw a world of flavorful beer. You know the rest of the story--the craft beer revolution has produced a rennassiance in brewing and resulted in a number of breweries rivaling pre-prohibition numbers (1400, giver or take).

Which brings us back to the question: why on earth are breweries backsliding into this tasteless muck? Well, turns out a lot of people enjoy a mild, fizzy beer from time to time. Some of them like decent beer but don't like ales and find most micros too strong; some of them recall their misspent youths--shotgunning Hamm's, say, not that I'd know anything about that--and have a nostalgic feeling for the flavor of liquid tin. Not to mention the cultural resonance of some of the old advertising. And some, while they dislike Bud, don't like ponying up $5 a pint or $14 a half-rack. So there's a funky niche market there.

While I think Full Sail probably ran the numbers and saw some profit in Session, I think a lot of brewers like retro, and the idea of brewing a light lager is a challenge. So few ingredients--is it possible to make something that's actually tasty? I actually think it's less the end of civilization than evidence of the diversity of beer in Oregon. So robust is the market that there's room for even a light lager. I would place long odds on this becoming a trend among micros.

And that leads us inevitably to this: is it any good? Well. One hesitates at such a question, and a certain appreciation for Bill Clinton dawns as the thought arises, "what's 'good' mean?" Schwag is what it is: a light lager with 10 IBUs. Brewer Jamie Floyd employs the same strategy Jamie Emmerson did at Full Sail--squeeze some aroma and flavor out of your hops without boosting the bitterness. The malt bill is all-barley, evident in the richly golden color, and it has a semi-sweet, biscuit quality. The hops are fruity if somewhat indistinct (being so few). My pint wasn't quite as effervescent as I would have liked, but that's a quibble. It was a well-made beer with a little less character than Session but far more character than anything you'll find in a macro. I appreciate it far more than I actually enjoy it. And I will never, ever have another pint when confronted with the bounty of Bailey's.


  1. What I would be worried about with these light lagers were I the brains behind Full Sail and Ninkasi is two things. One, loosing focus of the target market and trying to appeal to too may different segments. Two, diluting the brand identity. Full Sail is obviously aware of the second as the packaging for Session is almost completely devoid of Full Sail markings. Ninkasi should be wary of this as well. To me the micro macro trend (can we now call it a trend?) smacks of overreaching to improve the bottom line and I wonder what the long term consequences of this will be.

    That said, I do like Session, especially on a hot summer day, so I am glad of its existence.

  2. A quick point of history. In lifting the beer history timeline without attribution, Beer Info didn't manage to include the number of breweries at the peak.

    You'll find a better list at, or

    Check 1873 and you'll see there were 4131. That number recently has been called into question, but there's no doubt that close to 3,000 breweries were around.

    So the industrialization of American beer and consolidation was well underway before Prohibition. No doubt the blow Prohibition delivered, but we were already well down the slippery slope and might have ended up where we were in the 1960s anyway.

    The rise of beer as an industrial product (and the demise of traditional beer) is worth a book - and Maureen Ogle wrote a nice one called "Ambitious Brew" (recently went to paperback).

    It doesn't answer all the questions - were there smaller breweries that tried to make distinctive beers (lagers or ales) but still got swamped by adjunct beers? What were they thinking?

    As far as I know there isn't a place to find those answers.

    Meanwhile, I'd love it were a community of brewers to get together and do one of those "we'll all brew the same beer but not quite projects."

    Somebody does an 1870 recipe, somebody an 1880 recipe and so on up into the 1990s.

  3. could this trend be popular because of rising hop prices? or is it too soon to tell?

  4. Maybe it's about the little guy wanting to get a piece of the big boys action...?? ;-}

    OTOH, I think all the homebrewers out there know how hard it is to brew a lager that is THAT light and THAT flavorless... Seems like it should be easy, but it's not... ;-}

  5. Stan,

    A certain amount of consolidation was inevitable due to refrigeration--it allowed breweries to store and ship beer and reach markets previously beyond their "freshness perimeter." This happened globally, not just in the US. The question then arises--why did the US lose breweries producing all but a single style while this didn't happen in beer-producing countries of Europe?

    Industrialization and consolidation alone don't explain everything. It would be interesting to chart the consolidation in Germany, England, and Belgium during the period between refrigeration (1870) and prohibition and see how many breweries those countries lost. Perhaps it was a similar percentage. But the loss of nearly a thousand more breweries as the result of prohibition was a profound accelerant to the process.

  6. Some of your question will require a little research.

    I'll see what can find, but meanwhile
    do you know what styles were being produced in Oregon in 1890?

  7. I'm writing a paper on how the industrialization of beer has negatively affected the quality and flavor of beer in America. Your blog was very helpful, and I just want to say thanks.