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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

MacTarnahan Humbug'r

The folks over at Pyramid/MacTarnahan's are trying--I'll give them that. They have not let the the Mac's line become just a single product and this year introduced a new line-up of seasonals. All of that is good. They even put out an exotic saison (and exotic not just by MacTarnahan's standards). So definitely an A for effort there.

We come now to the critical portion of our review: the names and packaging for the new family of beers: Slingshot Summer Pale (good), Summer Grifter IPA (not good), and now the latest arrival, Winter Humbug'r (oh dear lord). The art is actually very cool, suggestive of graphic novels and dangerous fun. But a grifter is a guy who hustles you out of money--likesay the $8.29 you spent on the six-pack. Would you call a beer Swindler or Cheater? As for Humbug'r, the sense of the lurid is such that--Bug'r, really? I remember the crazy Bobbydazzler of years past, a bizarre Englishism, but harmless enough. One might hope that Humbug'r is a name of similar provenance, but the label convinces you otherwise: a soused lunatic brandishing a sprig of mistletown and leering. And it's called Humbug'r.

What were they thinking?

The beer? It's pretty good. A light porter with a silky, oaty body. Porters and stouts are great winter beers, and I commend Mac's for eschewing another winter warmer. This beer is actually a bit of amalgam, equal parts dry stout, with a slightly burnt, roasted front note, part brown porter, with a pronounced sweet middle, and part sweet stout, with that silky full body. It is a bit on the mild side (a house character, so perhaps appropriate), and on those really bitter December days people might be reaching for the Obsidian instead. But overall, a fine beer. I'd give it a solid B.

But since we're giving advice to breweries these days, here's mine. It's nearly 2010. Beers that appear to succeed in the marketplace are those that distinguish themselves with bold flavors. I haven't really seen a line that has succeeded by dint of a clever ad campaign or brand identity, and locals tend to be turned off by anything that looks like it spent too long in a room with a wine-drinking design team. MacTarnahan's seasonal lineup now features a pale, an IPA, and a porter. These are fine beers, and they're perfectly well-made. I just think Mac's needs to come out of the gate with a little more under the hood and a little less focus on packaging. You've hired some great brewers--turn them loose and get out of the way.


  1. Clever ad campaigns and brand identity are really what the American beer industry is based on. BudMillerCoors is little more, can small brewers long escape the big business model of the marketing department running the ship. Very few brewers use the same graphics they started with, it takes confidence about what's in the bottle, like Sierra Nevada and Anchor seem to have. Unfortunately for avid consumers, most people know little about the world of beers and buy the most popular, fashionable or cleverly packaged products with little concern about unique flavors.

  2. Maybe it's just me, but I am not a fan of the Hum Bug'r.

    My friend who recommended it to me (and is still calling one of this favorite seasonals), thinks that it tastes like Widmer's Snow Plow. I don't get that. I would describe it as a sweet, watered down Black Butte Porter. Although, I'm not sure if it actually contains lactose. I didn't see it mentioned anywhere on the product or Mac's website.

    I agree that there is nothing off-putting about it, but at the same time nothing that makes it stand out either. Using your scale, I'd go hard C.


  3. I don't know if it's the Magic Hat buffoons or local leadership, but both Mac's and Pyramid's naming and packaging are both completely awful. Pyramid looks like its trying to sell Mountain Dew in the late 90s and Mac's seems to be intentionally trying to creep people out. honestly, are they trying to corner the hobo and vagrant market? If so, well done! Too bad too, because I do think Mac's especially has potential and I know they want to restablish it as a local favorite. I just think the Portland market is a bit too savvy to be able and fake it. Establish Mac's and maybe a solid IPA (Grifter's not terrible but again.. that packaging...) and turn lose the brewers on cranking out high quality limited releases.

  4. Don't like Macs or Pyramid any more. Just not good beer. Especially Pyramid.

    This marketing is obviously aiming for a 21-to-25 year old doofus crowd, so it won't necessarily appeal to older consumers. Is it working on the doofus is the question?

  5. I actually really like the beer a lot. The name is, well, not great, but whatever. I think the beer is solid and I'd actually go A- on your scale. It is defintiely more of an English style, less agreessive Porter. I was told by one of the brewers that it's actually a revamped Black Watch. I actually like it a lot more than Black Watch but think it's because most of the times I tried Black Watch it wasn't fresh, since I don't think it was ever a big seller. I wouldn't compare it to Snow Plow because it's not nearly as sweet.

    Yes, it's not brash and bold,but I really like it's understated, more elegant style. It is one of my favorite seasonals right now, and I'll be buying more of it as opposed to some of the other seasonals like Jubel, Snow Cap, and Wassail. Maybe it's because I'm a big fan of understated English styles. Dunno, but I thought it was an excellent beer.

  6. Oregonians like to think their above these flashy marketing attempts, but have you ever watched people in the bomber section of a Safeway or Roths?? Sometimes it's amusing to spend a few extra minutes watching people make their selections so you can see them agonize over which new seasonal they should buy only to make a selection based on beer style or packaging. They never look at IBU's, or ingrediants if they're listed.

    As to Humbug'r.... I think a C would be generous. We did a winter seasonal tasting recently and the general consensus was that it was a forgetable beer. None of us found anything offensive about it, but no one found any anything unique or memorable. The winner ended up being Winter Solstice by Anderson Valley with Humbug'r ranking near the tail end of the mid ranked beers. Winter Fish was voted worst.

  7. I guess your different reax go to show that we all have different tastes. Reading through your comments though, I wonder how much expectations play a role in our assessments. My own expectation was that Humbug'r would be a mildish interpretation of a porter--as they tend to make all beer mild. Reading Average Bill, I now wonder how much it seemed mild because I expected it to.

  8. "only to make a selection based on beer style or packaging. They never look at IBU's, or ingrediants if they're listed."

    That sounds a lot like me, but I already know that info because I educate myself before I go to the store for a purchase. And what's wrong with choosing a beer based on style?

  9. No doubt my expectations played a role in my experience. I was expecting a winter warmer at best, a porter at least. I could easily go to the store and pick a better tasting porter.


    There's nothing wrong with choosing a beer on style if you know what your looking for. This ties in with what Jeff was saying about the novelty curve. I'll watch someone standing there looking through the new seasonals and grabbing an imperial stout, or an IPA without reading anything on the label. It's great if your trying a beer just to try it, and not caring what your getting. If your looking for something good though then read the label. Of course I'm talking about your average Joe who drinks craft beer, not the Joe who educates themselves :P

    Also if Oregonians are above the influence of marketing then why are we still sucking down PBR and Miller like crazy in this state?

  10. This is one of best porters I've ever had that I could just buy at a local grocery store (e.g. Safeway). I love the body and mild oat flavor and it makes a great winter session beer (not too much of anything). I give it an A- for style, body, balance and flavor. I also commend Mac's for producing one of the best session IPA's I've ever had (Grifter). Although the packaging is a bit odd (but rememberable), the quality of the beer is fantastic.