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Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Notes

A few things to tide you over for the weekend.  First up, my latest post at All About Beer, wherein I take a look at one of the most influential breweries most people haven't heard of, Brasserie Thiriez.
As Americans have taken up saisons, [Dupont is] not the direction they’ve headed. Instead, they make beers with less assertive, more familiar esters in the citrus family that are light in hopping and only medium-dry—something like a kellerbier crossed with a Belgian pale ale. If you start tracing these beers back to their source, you find yourself not in Belgium, but just across the border, in Esquelbecq, France. This is where Daniel Thiriez started his farmhouse brewery (also named Thiriez) 19 years ago and where he started brewing beers that look a lot more like American saisons than does Dupont’s.
Next, you might have a gander at Martyn Cornell's most recent, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the mutable nature of beer style. 
Meanwhile, here’s a small rant ... about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale”.... You don’t have a clue what you are talking about....  Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. 
Oh, and somebody's mad on the internet.  And no, not about dress color.  But lest you get too hot and bothered, I'd say this is a standard the-world-is-changing, get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids wheeze.  It really doesn't have anything to do with beer.
Craft beer culture must die, or at least stop taking over all the pubs where I like to go. If it were contained to its own small bars where I never drink, it’d just be another niche subculture, where it belongs. 
Finally, go have a look at Pete Dunlop's fine description of the knotty situation A-B, Maletis, and 10 Barrel Brewing find themselves in.
You may recall that 10 Barrel was purchased by AB last year. The intended outcome of that purchase was that 10 Barrel brands would be distributed by AB-owned Western Distributing in this area. The problem is, Maletis owns the franchise rights to 10 Barrel here.
Have a good weekend--

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oregon's Best Beer

This week our local alt-weekly Willamette Week released their annual beer guide.  It includes their picks of the year's best beers and, for the first time ever, winners of the "Oregon Beer Awards" in 15 different categories.  Most people are pretty desensitized to best-of lists these days, particularly in this moment of online listicles.  Who cares what WW thinks, so goes the thinking, since we all have our own favorites?  I've got one foot in that boat, too, but there are a few reasons why this is a good and healthy development.

Upright's Alex Ganum. (WW's Arts and Culture editor,
Martin Cizmar, smiles in the shadows at right.)
Let's start with WW's pick for best beer: Upright Engelberg Pilsner.  Awards are only effective so long as they're credible.  I absolutely love this pick.  It follows pFriem's Strong Dark (2014) and the Commons' Urban Farmhouse (2013)--also excellent choices.  They're all good beers, but WW is also effectively using its bully pulpit to identify important beers.  Oregon breweries have been trying to make traditional pilsners for decades, and they just never sold.  Brewers love them, but the market is a tyrant--no sales, no pilsner.  Upright managed to finally break through, though.  I suspect it had something to do with restaurants--I would regularly find it on places with well-curated taplists.  (Chefs know that pilsners are great with food; they're versatile and won't overwhelm the dishes they've worked so hard to perfect.)  Since Upright came out, Oregon has now become a safe port for pilsners, and there are a ton of excellent ones around.  I've noticed restaurants often seem to reserve a tap handle for pilsners the way they do for IPAs.  Give Alex and Upright a lot of credit for that--and give WW credit for recognizing it.

This hints at why awards may have lasting value.  We don't fool ourselves into thinking there is such a thing as a "best" beer--subjectivity can never be quantified.  Yet collectively, awards are a great way to give a snapshot to a particular time and place.  Willamette Week's awards can't reflect the actual best beers, but they can illuminate where the beer world was at that moment.  Awards are really a way of saying, "here's where we were in 2015."  Done well, they act both as a pretty good time capsule and year-end wrap up all in one.

Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker
I don't know if the Oregon Beer Awards will have legs, but I also think it's worthwhile to have a bit of pomp and celebrate an industry.  On Monday, WW announced the awards at the Doug Fir Lounge, and there was quite a turnout.  Kurt Widmer, rarely sighted in the wild, was in the house.  Matt Swihart, rarely cited in Portland, was too.  You couldn't swing a bottle of High Life without hitting a brewer (bottles of which started popping up after the beer lines downstairs got too long).  I was part of the selection committee that created the categories and made nominations.  (It was mostly brewers and people inside the industry, not writers.)  WW sent the names of the ten nominees in each category out to a couple hundred industry types for the voting.  The recognition came from inside the industry and allowed some smaller entities to shine.  It felt like the kind of collegial event that has been the hallmark of Oregon brewing for so long--and I could imagine it surviving well into the future.

So while I don't need WW to tell me what Oregon's best beer is, I'm glad they did anyway. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Full Sail Voting to Scrap ESOP, Merge With Investment Firm

A fascinating tidbit I thought I'd pass along.  Today, Jamie Emmerson and Irene Firmat announced that the company is considering whether to end its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and merge with an investment firm.  This is a little different than the standard A-B news we've been hearing lately.  John Holl explains:
The number today of employee owners—called shareholders—is 78, and on Tuesday Founder and CEO Irene Firmat and Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson sent a letter to those folks, asking them to vote on a proposal to merge with a San Francisco-based investment firm....

Shareholders were given ballots earlier today and those votes will be tallied at the end of the month. If approved, the investors could take ownership by mid-March. For the existing shareholders there will be a stock-option plan, but it will no longer be an ESOP company, but Firmat said it will enable employees to benefit along with the company as it continues to grow....

Firmat noted in an interview that the investors do not have a brewing background, so they will need the existing employees with their wide range of expertise to stay on and helm Full Sail. If the vote is successful, Firmat and Emmerson plan on staying at the brewery they founded in 1987.
I am not close enough to Full Sail nor smart enough about business to be able to parse this, but maybe some smart reader can give us some insight as to the pluses and minuses for the employees.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Cask Deschutes River Ale

Last week I glanced up against the subject of cask ale, and by chance I managed to end the week by encountering an actual glass of the stuff when I had dinner at Deschutes.  Bend's finest is one of the last refuges of cask ale in the city, and you can always find two handles devoted to it when you stop in.  Rarely, though, do they offer something in the English mode--a low-alcohol, low-hop session beer.  As a traditionalist, I love these the best.  (Though Ron Pattinson, when he was in town a while back, swooned over the Fresh-Squeezed IPA on cask.  It was also on cask last Friday, and I admit I was impressed.  Still think the flavors don't go through the full transmutation of smaller beers, but still, mighty impressive.)

I have never had much success convincing people hat 4%, 28 IBU beers are the pinnacle of cask accomplishment, and I may not convince you now.  But do me a favor, and drink a pint of real River Ale and see for yourself.  (I have no idea if it's still on or how often it comes on--but let this stand as a plea to the brewery to do it often.)  The wonderful thing about this beer is that it is 100% American.  It's got the classic pale-and-caramel malt base and a troika of juicy American hops (Nugget, Crystal, and Cascade).  On cask, the body seems to swell; it's full and rich.  The hops are zingy and zesty in that unmistakeable American way.  When you swallow, the malts turn golden in your mouth, departing with the essence of honey.  It's a lovely duet--American beer, English package, all in perfect harmony. 

Make it a point to try this beer if you ever see it there again. I know, I know--IPAs and all that.  But I just can't believe you won't be transfixed.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Different View From London

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on All About Beer wherein I mentioned with some alarm the ubiquity of American-style beers in London.  I specifically name-checked The Kernel, and yesterday one of the brewers, Toby Munn, left a really thoughtful comment on the blog.  With his permission, I'm reprinting it in full.


I commented on your All About Beer page, but I like repeating myself. This is just regarding point 1. These are all valid points, and your concern over the health of British cask beer is not insignificant. But, I would like to point out that, although there are a few breweries and a few beers that are attracting headlines, there are still a huge amount of beers produced that are quintessentially British.

This is just my tiny little opinion, but I happen to think that the influx of outside influence is good for traditional beers and breweries. I think that the younger/newer drinkers are bringing with them a different, critical look to beers. On the one hand, traditional brewers are concerned that newer drinkers are just after a 'grapefruit hit' in their beers, and concerned with only IBUs and intensity of flavours. In the short term, this may be true, sadly. Long term, I think that these newer drinkers will understand more about the technicalities about what makes beer great, and the subtleties that makes beer great. To reference a post that I think is perhaps relevant, and almost certainly true.  [Note: Toby added that link, not me.]

I think that the introduction of these different styles and new flavours is only a good thing. These modern drinkers will have a fuller and more rounded view and opinion of beers, and are more critical in general. If we are to follow trends of the US, we will see that producers of truly great beer are in demand. This, I think, will happen here in the UK, and elsewhere. Actually, it is evident already.

The problem with many indigenous beers, whether in Britain, Germany, or, especially, Belgium, is that, after years and years of little progression, the only point of difference has been price point, and the only change has been a deterioration in standard. There are many traditional beers and breweries that are truly awful. And there are many that have stuck to their principals and are outstanding. I think with the newer drinkers, armed with more discerning taste buds, will raise the expectation of what good beer should be, irrespective of style, and make our tiny little world of beer a better place. Other opinions are, of course, available.

When you came to Britain in 2011, I am sure that you found many beers that were dreadful. Just because it is served from a cask does not make it good. Similarly, just because a beer is doused in Mosaic is no guarantee that it is any good.

Your concern for traditional styles is valid. It is not insignificant. But I believe that your concern will be proved to be moot.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Grab Bag of Interesting

Let's skip the usual preamble and launch straight into the many interesting tidbits I have collected for you.

1.  I have both a new post at All About Beer and one I think I forgot to tease.  The new one concerns how London's beer scene looks a lot like ... Portland's (or any American city).  They love them some American-style IPAs--but it leaves me wondering who will champion cask.  It has already provoked one rebuttal--or call it an addendum--from Boak and Bailey.

The earlier post I forgot to mention emerged from Gigantic's Massive! barley wine, a beer that endures a nine-hour boil.  It gave me an opportunity to haul out my old Lacambre and throw around words like "maillard reaction."  Read it here.

2.  While we're on All About Beer, you might consider checking out this post about the proposed new Mikkeller brewery slated to go into San Diego later this year.  Interesting experiment.

3.  A beer fest in Reykjavik features two Oregon breweries (of 13 total)--Hopworks and Breakside.  From the press release:
“Our focus has been on breweries from Oregon simply because we like the way people from Oregon think and how the craft beer movement has been developing in that particular state,” said Ólafur Ágústsson, restaurant manager at KEX. “We feel that we can connect to people from Portland and all of Oregon. Reykjavik has a lot in common.”
The next question is: how do I swing a junket to Iceland?

4.  The rare brewers dinner that features multiple breweries.  It's at Higgins and it ain't cheap, but you get the Commons, Crux, Boneyard, Barley Brown, and pFriem in one meal.  And Higgins is never cheap, anyway.  I do wish more restaurants would do this kind of thing.  Italian beer dinners, German beer dinners, sour beer dinners--there are many organizing principles one can deploy that don't involve one brewery.

5.  We drink less beer.  Ron Pattinson has a fascinating group of charts showing how much less we drink now than we used to.  In the past fifty years, per-capita beer consumption has fallen markedly:
  • Belgium, -38%
  • (West) Germany, -6%
  • UK, -25%
The US is slightly weird because of prohibition, but another chart, in which he looks at the last six years, is equally interesting:
  • Belgium, -12%
  • Czech Republic, -9%
  • Germany, -4%
  • Ireland, -20%
  • Netherlands, -11%
  • UK, -21%
So the period corresponding to the biggest worldwide brewery boom in--well, forever--is also the period in which per capita consumption is tanking.  (True in the US, too, though numbers are lagging.  Consumption fell 7% from '08 to '11.)

6.  According to my Facebook alerts, February 18th is the birthday of Crux's Larry Sidor, Pink Boots' Teri Fahrendorf, and Double Mountain's Matt Swihart.  That seems like a damned impressive coincidence.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Portland's Favorite IPA

The Oregon Hophouse has recently been running a little experiment.  They invited patrons to try a flight of twelve IPAs and vote on their favorites.  In a certain sense, the free market functions as a way of determining patrons' favorite beers, too.  But in that case, people may be influenced by price, ad campaigns, the image of a brewery, peer pressure, or proximity.  Here it was just twelve unmarked beers and the palates of the tasters.  The flight contained:
  • Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack
  • Boneyard RPM
  • Breakside IPA
  • Crux Outcast
  • Double Mountain Hop Lava
  • Fort George Vortex
  • Gigantic IPA
  • Goodlife Descender
  • Hop Valley Alphadelic
  • Laurelwood Workhorse
  • Migration Luscious Lupulin
  • Ninkasi Total Domination
Care to guess which one came out on top?  Before I tell you, last year the champeen was Boneyard--but the beers weren't served blind.  This year, 864 people cast a ballot and the results looked like this: 
Barley Brown Pallet Jack: 160 (18.5%)*
Breakside IPA:132 (15.2%)
Boneyard RPM: 123 (14.2%)
I'm interested in this experiment because I think it tracks the momentary preferences of Oregonians.  Boneyard has definitely been the most recent example of the Oregon palate, with its thick body and saturated late-addition flavors and aromas.  Pallet Jack is lighter and sharper and more dank--to me it seems a bit more Californian. (A characterization I suspect would make a good Baker Citian cringe.) Breakside is a more classic interpretation, with tons of citrus and a hint of pine.  So does this suggest a move away from the Boneyard mode to something a little more universal?  Probably that's going too far--Boneyard did hang in at a respectable third.  But still, it's at least suggestive.

Interesting side-note.  In an email, the Hophouse's Kirsten Seitz added this bit of detail: "Breakside was in fourth/fifth place until the third week, when both locations saw a drastic increase in votes for Breakside.  It even earned the most votes during a week at each location in total votes, but it still wasn't enough to surpass Pallet Jack's monthly totals.  It was incredibly interesting to witness the change, and the staff felt certain that it was a new batch of Breakside."  I offer that without a lot of commentary--though I'd love it if someone from Breakside would care to weigh in with theories.

*Does this prove Pallet Jack is definitively Portland's fave IPA?  No.  It was not a scientific study and there are any number of variables that were not controlled for.  But it was a blind tasting, and so I'd be leery to dismiss it outright, either. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Spontaneous by Proxy

The juice beginning fermentation.
A few months back, I mentioned trying an experiment with spontaneous yeast.  I was racking a batch of spontaneously-fermented cider, and when I discovered that lovely yeast cake at the bottom of the carboy, I wished I had some wort to throw on it.  Well, I got another bite at the ... err, another chance.  Kevin Zielinski, who makes some of the best cider in America, set me up with ten gallons of juice from his orchards (a mix of mostly French and some English bittersweet varieties).  He suggested I try one in the English mode, racked once and fermented to dry, and once in the French mode, with multiple rackings to try to get the yeast to exhaust the nutrients in the juice and go dormant (which is how they end up with sweet ciders that don't turn the bottles into bombs).

In any case, this afternoon I finished up a three-gallon batch of wort and transferred it to the barm of one of those ciders.  It smells like a great ferment has begun, with a lovely, fresh juice aroma and the beginnings of that wild yeast funk (and a bit of sulfur, which Kevin says is normal).  If this works, I'm going to call it "spontaneous by proxy" and hope the title catches on.  Of course, if it doesn't work I'll call it "a debacle" and hope everyone forgets quickly and moves along.

I am slightly less sanguine than I was before, though, owing to the lab report Kevin shared with me of the yeast and bacteria found in the juice sample.  It has lots of saccharomyces, which is great, and very little brettanomyces, which is curious.  But it also has tons of acetic acid bacteria, something called Hanseniaspora uvarum, and something else called Pichia membranifaciens.  I can't predict whether these would normally be found in a spontaneously-fermented beer, so who knows what they'll do in my wort.

Whatever happens, never fear--I'll let you know.

Update.  Well that was fast.   The yeast cake went into the wort at about 3pm yesterday, and by 7 this morning it was rocking.  I'd chilled the wort down to 55 so the yeast wouldn't be shocked by warm temps (the apple juice is outside and is probably around 45-48).  I therefore expected a slow ramp-up, but no:

(And to be clear, I don't leave the carboy on the sunny deck to ferment--that was for photographic purposes only.)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Maine Flirts with an Honest Pint

Yesterday, a ripple went through social media about a proposed bill in Maine that would make "cheater pints" illegal.  This is an issue dear to my heart, and one with which I have some history.  Years ago, I attempted (in my usual, half-assed bloggy way) to be an advocate for "Honest pints."  When you go to a gas station, you don't worry about getting 120 ounce gallons; a quart of milk may not be 29.2 ounces.  So why on earth should we allow a pint of beer to be 12-15 ounces, as it regularly is in pubs and restaurants around the country? 

That said, I'm not entirely sure Maine's strategy will be effective.  As that Guardian article describes (with, full disclosure, lots of quotes from me), this has already been a two-time loser.  It generally comes down to cost and enforcement.  Most everyone agrees that the idea is good (those willfully cheating customers excepted), but putting a regulatory and enforcement structure in place causes people to balk.  A point foes rush to make:
It was a point echoed by Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers' Guild. "We believe that crafting a beer-specific bill, targeting something that is already illegal, and shifting enforcement responsibilities to our already-overburdened liquor enforcement officials, would not be useful," Sullivan said.
I'm not actually convinced this is a legitimate argument (foes are never disinterested bystanders), but it does appear to be an effective one. Somehow the burden does not overwhelm the governments in Germany, the Czech Republic, and the UK.  The bill is completely vestigial now, and with public policy, the devil is always in the small print.  If they do pull it off, it could be a beachhead for future legislation.  Godspeed, Mainers, may you go where no Americans have gone before!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In All the Little Ways, Newcastle Really Says "Macro"

Last week we had some nice chat about a large beer brand proudly proclaiming itself "macro."  When one of these craft-vs-macro debates springs up, we always get lost in the definition weeds: what do the terms mean?  Back at the dawn of the new-brewery age, there actually was a standard charge against macro (a term born when craft beer was "micro").  It was made cheaply of filler ingredients, hid that it was made in a factory plant far removed from the town it claimed to be from, was owned by a foreign company, and survived mainly because of a massive ad campaign that kept the truth hidden and the reality safely locked away.

That actually doesn't sound like last week's macro--Budweiser--which has always been extremely forthright about their beer and production.  It does, however, perfectly describe Newcastle.  Behold:
A spokesman for Heineken confirmed: “We are in the process of changing our recipe for Newcastle Brown Ale and it will no longer include caramel colouring.

“We will now achieve the distinctive colouring and flavour of Newcastle Brown Ale, that our consumers enjoy, by using roasted malts instead.”  
This is pretty amazing--and revealing.  I thought caramel coloring went out with leisure suits.  I heard rumors that various companies would turn their regular lagers into "dark lagers" with judicious use of caramel color, but those were crude times when people thought "dark lager" was something impossibly exotic.  That Newcastle, presumably to shave a few pennies off the bottom line, has been using it well into the new millennium--well, just spectacular.  Better to spend all the money on ads like these instead:

Other things to know: the brand is owned by Heineken and brewed in this brewery, in Tadcaster, by John Smith's:

It is largely an export product.  Boak and Bailey, who sent me a wonderful report showing that it has only 4.5% of the bottled ale market in the UK (and ales are a wee minority of the beer market), said, "We've only ever seen it in bottles but it's pretty widely available in pubs in that format, hidden behind the bar in the fridges next to Hofmeister Pils and Mann's Brown Ale."  Mark Dredge agreed, "You might see it occasionally in supermarkets or a dusty bottle at the back of a bar fridge, but that's about it." 

For what it's worth, when I was writing The Beer Bible, I tried to contact someone from the Newcastle division to hear about how the beer was made and maybe get some archival photography.  It was I think the only English-language brand that completely blew me off.  I have a clearer sense why now.

So to recap: made cheaply of filler ingredients? Check.  Hid where it was made while still trading on the reputation of the old location?  Check.  Owned by a foreign company?  Check.  And finally, keeps the truth safely hidden away behind a massive ad campaign?  Check and check. 

You want an authentically crap beer where the cost of production is scrimped on to make way for the cost of sales?  You could hardly do better than Newcastle Brown.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Double Mountain My Little Runaway

There's been entirely too much chat about the business of beer: let's talk about beer itself for a change.  Today's selection comes to us from Hood River, where Double Mountain founder and orchard-owner Matt Swihart has been making tasty fruit beers for several years.  His pièce de résistance is Devil's Kriek, a wild cherry ale that bubbles away under a Brettanomcyes cap over in one corner of the brewery throughout the year.  He may actually have topped himself with My Little Runaway, however, which is one of the best beers I've tried in recent memory.

Photo blatantly stolen from Ezra at the New School.
There's not a ton of info about Runaway except that it was fermented with the Ardennes yeast, made with Van and Bing cherries and "a tiny stolen blend of next year's Devil Kriek to commingle as sweet, refreshing cherry ale with the ghost of bitterness."  (Someone at the brewery has lately gotten poetic with the press releases.)  I considered trying to track down more info, but sometimes the less you know, the more you taste, so I let my mouth give me the tour.

Superficially, Runaway presents itself like a light frolic of sweetness and cherries, frothy and kissed with sweetness.  Uncareful tasters might not notice anything more and be plenty happy with that.  But there's more going on.  It's got a touch of acidity, which gives it some vinous balance (I think wine drinkers would absolutely love this beer).  A mouthful evolves in short order past the fruit into something earthy and spicy, which read to me like tannins.  (Cherry pits?)  A hint of leathery Brettanomcyes accentuates this quality and also dries the beer out as you swallow.  It is a wild ale, but just barely--and in this I think there's a lesson. Breweries often let their wild beasts roam too freely, and the aggressively sour and/or dry beers that result are too much for all except the most inveterate sour-heads. If all wild ales were at this level of intensity, though, they could find a mass audience. (Maybe the fact that the label nowhere identifies it as such is telling.) It's hard to imagine who wouldn't enjoy this beer. 

There has been a lot of talk about brewery ownership structures and "fussy" beers lately, and My Little Runaway is instructive for another reason.  It may well have mass appeal, but it's the kind of beer that's probably almost impossible to make on a mass scale.  It employs whole fruit, which is a pain in the ass to work with in large volumes, but more importantly gets its secret ingredient from an aging wild ale, the king of the unscalable beers.  You might be able to find a workaround to get a beer something like this if you wanted to brew 2 million barrels, but those spicy tannins, that delicate dryness--I can't imagine how you could mass-market that.  Little breweries often make the best beer because some of the best beer can't be made in giant volumes. 

Do yourself a favor and track down My Little Runaway (bottles are supposed to be available in PDX, but if you happen to be in the Gorge, make a special trip to Double Mountain)--it will remind you of just how good beer can be.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Bud Finds Its Voice?

This is easily one of the most interesting beer ads I've ever seen:

"Budweiser, proudly a macro beer.  It's not brewed to be fussed over." (Shot of a contemptible hipster with old-timey stache.)  A bit later, "It's brewed for drinking, not dissecting."  (More contemptible snobs.)  "Let them drink their pumpkin peach ale."  There's a bunch of other familiar text in there, but when the minute-long add winds up to its booming conclusion with the tag "this Bud's for you," it carries a different resonance.  This Bud, the brewing giant says with a wink, is for you, not one of those poncey hipsters.

It's not even subtext--it's text.  Budweiser VP Brian Perkins told Ad Age that "occasionally we do have a little bit of fun with some of the overwrought pretentiousness that exists in some small corners of the beer landscape that is around beer snobbery. That is the antithesis of what Budweiser is all about."

This is not a beer ad targeted toward you and me.  It's an ad targeted at the huge slice of people who are casual, promiscuous drinkers who might go for a Bud, a Blue Moon or a Sierra Nevada Pale depending on their mood.  Mass market lagers have been taking a beating among that cohort, and Bud's ad is bid to reel them back in.  Those drinkers are attracted to new things said to be tasty, and the ad is an attempt to remind them that Anheuser-Busch believes their beer is plenty full of cred, thanks.  It's a fascinating ad because it's unexpectedly pointed and effective.

More thoughts:

1.  The big companies can no longer ignore craft brewing (and I use that term advisedly).  It was a contemptuous acknowledgement, but the shots at dissecting pumpkin peach ales are still an acknowledgement. 

2.  It definitely tweaked a lot of people, but they're wrong to call it "defensive."  That's echo-chamber thinking.  Many craft fans have internalized the narrative that Bud is both evil and low-grade.  But Bud never accepted those terms--nor have the millions who continue to drink the beer.  To them, this looks like the appropriate retort to a bunch of hipper-than-thou snobs.  It wasn't targeted at the beer geek, whom Bud has already lost.  What really looks defensive are the responses from the geek community who are miffed that Bud is using exactly the same tone (in-your-face, irreverent, dismissive of the competition) that craft has been using for thirty years against Bud.

3.  This approach won't stop Bud's decline.  The truth is, we are a vast, diverse country, and the idea that any single flavor could so totally dominate the market as mass market lagers did for decades, is impossible to entertain in the 21st century.  What is Bud's natural market--16 million barrels (today's figure), 10 million, 5 million?  Hard to say, but no ad campaign is going to reverse the diversification of the market in beer. 

4.  It might well slow Bud's decline, though.  Throughout the decades from the 1960s through the 1980s, big beer companies had honed their advertising strategies to compete against each other over a pretty indistinguishable commodity (fizzy pale lagers).  They didn't advertise beer--they advertised frogs and dogs and lots and lots of bikini-clad women.  It became self-parody, and made it very easy for competitors to paint these products as industrial crap fit only for gullible rubes. That's all fine if the product is a commodity, but once craft brewers came along, it changed the calculus.  If those fizzy light lagers are going to hold onto some share of the market, they're going to have to make a pitch for the beer.  This ad suggests that Bud may have gotten the memo.

5.  "Craft beer" (again, using that term advisedly) had better watch it's own image.  The fact that The New Yorker and Budweiser are both mocking craft beer is not so good for craft beer.  Hipsters are probably the single most hated group in America (so much so that I don't think I've ever heard anyone call himself one), so this association is not good.  Craft beer could take a lesson from the bigs on this point: beer is the common man's drink.  The more craft beer is known as a white, upper-class, urban, metrosexual drink, the more it will be ripe for mocking. 

No grand conclusions here--it's just all fascinating to see.  We do live in interesting times, don't we?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Sam is Dead in PDX

Good luck trying to find some Sam Adams Boston Lager in Portland. It's been a long time since I've bothered to look for any--I need it for symbolic purposes for a little party that begins this afternoon--and I had no idea what a rarity it has become.  The five sixers that constitute the usual stock at my local Fred Meyer* were long raided, and shoppers could not bring themselves to snag that last sixer of Sam Adams Light.  There were a few Rebel IPAs left--but as symbolism goes, "west-coast style IPA" doesn't really get it done.

Great beer selection; no Boston Lager. (source)
So off I went to Plaid Pantry**.  Apparently they don't stock it at all.  (Thirty brands of local beer, a few mass markets, but nothing from Boston Cincinnati. Then to Zupan's***.  Nyet.  Finally a hail Mary to Belmont Station, one of Portland's best bottle shops--and success!  Ordering maven Chris Ormand had the good sense to make sure some Boston Lager was on the shelves for just such an occasion.  I think there's something instructive in this story, but I'm not entirely sure what it is.  Just that, I suppose, a beer I thought was absolutely ubiquitous turns out not to be.  Good thing Jim Koch has that cider thing to fall back on.  Had I wanted a sixer of Angry Orchard, I could have gotten that anywhere.

*Fred Meyer ("Freddy's" to locals) is an old local supermarket chain.  It's owned by Kroger, but Fred Meyer was beloved to locals, and the home office--also in Cincinnati--made the wise decision to leave the name.  The stores are giant and have hundreds of beers and ciders for sale.

**Plaid Pantry is a local convenience-store chain

***Zupan's is a local high-end food market chain.  Also a huge selection of beer.  That we have so many weird local businesses is probably also instructive, but we'll leave that rumination for later.