A Good Beer Blog

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Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


Comments

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Thomas Cizauskas -

Considering that today is the date for Savor, the beer-with-food orgy in Washington, D.C., this is a timely post.

neets -

Really, get out of your American micro cave/cellar and go to the Beer Store. Look at what the vast majority of beer from the vast majority of Canadian micros is. Session brews. Canadian craft beer has been part of 'the session' since the beginning. Has this made it any more successful than it's American cousin?

Jeff Alworth -

I was with you right up until the opera example.

I know you resist the comparison between beer and art, but I've long felt its apt in explaining why craft beer will never have more than a minority share of the market (which is true everywhere in the world). It's the same reason Beckett's Malloy was never a big seller. (The third or fourth paragraph runs for 35 pages.)

I can reasonably imagine a future in which mass-produced beer is better than it is now. We are witnessing a crisis in American macro beer, and the industry is little able to respond. The problem is that their product isn't distinctive enough to create real loyalty. Comes a five year recession, and people are just as happy with Busch Lite as Bud Lite for a few bucks less.

In Oregon, one of the most successful brands is Full Sail's Session line, which isn't really a session. But it does a decent job of bringing together the macro and micro and making both camps happy. It's a beer I could imagine selling at ballparks around the country. Eventually.

Alan -

Well, to be fair to you Jeff, it was either Opera or stamps. I was not really making an "art" point but I do take yours. Maybe it is irrational to expect craft beer to have a 25% share. Maybe craft brewers should focus on exclusivity and even go all snob. But if that is not the case, I think the problem really is that macro beer does in fact create real loyalty through massive advertising of brand association. They also offer price points within the range of branding. Allagash and Middle Ages are a brewers who provide quality quantity session beers as welll as their premium lines.

Neets, much of Canadian craft beer really hasn't been part of the session so much as been unable to break from the idea that to compete with a macro you have to taste like a macro. There are plenty of examples otherwise - especially in Quebec but more and more elsewhere, too. One great example of craft meeting session in Canada is Wellington's Arkell Bitter. Had some the other Friday after work and was really surprised how it hit the spot at only 4%.

Lew Bryson -

Yes, yes, <b>yes.</b> The geeks -- I'm sorry, the <i>aficionados</i> make fun of Fat Tire and most craft lagers; these are the beers that are going to get craft past 5%, if that ever happens. I've talked to the guys at Victory, and they said that's their "secret plan." People want to drink beer from local breweries, people want to drink 'better beer,' but the big majority of them don't want 8+% beers or 35+ IBU beers. Most of them don't really want dark beers, either, but I think we could get them over that (not that we have to, but it would be fun). So they plan to sell them helles, festbier, and "English summer ale." I think it's brilliant, I think it's very doable. The question is how to present it.

Money is an issue, too: price is a barrier to drinking craft. But as craft brewers get larger, economies kick in and they can bring that down. They don't want to bring it down to Bud Light level, but they probably can and should bring it down to within a buck of Corona/Heineken, which is where they should be competing (at the least).

Craft is never going to get to even 10% on the strength of IPAs and barrel-aged oddities; I think we all pretty much know that. I'll be equally honest with my own hobby-horse and admit that it won't get to 10% on the 'strength' of sub-4.5% session beers. But on all-malt, well-made helles, festbier, golden ale, summer ale, and wheat (wit, hefe, 'American wheat ale') beers? Yeah, I think 10% and more is definitely doable.

Gary Gillman -

Mass market beer evolved to its current state over a very long period, influenced by many factors: economic/technological and marketing primarily, which combined to result in a fairly bland-tasting drink. People simply got used to the taste, just as previously (1800-1950 to pick a range) they had gotten used to what the breweries were making then, which was a more assertive taste. That assertiveness was the result mostly of an earlier technology: to make beer of a certain strength and (especially) to preserve it, it had a fairly strong taste - and so people got used to that. The fathers at the cricket pitches or village games in the millions drank porter, pale bitter beer, or sweet strong ale (still fairly hopped by today's standards) and that was the mass taste then.

So I don't think inherently the mass of people are inclined to one taste or another necessarily. The mass taste could switch over again to a more bitter or richer taste: it could happen but when is hard to say. I think someone has to come up with the right taste, the right formula. Something can taste strong but if tastes good people will buy it.

Gary

Lew Bryson -

Damn. I thought the <b> and <i> tags would work, being equivalents of and . Sorry.

Alan -

Its a funny sort of HTML here, Lew. The <b> and <i> only work if you have enough maple syrup in you.

The messaging about craft beer has got to get more coherent and aimed at the needs of the consumer rather than the wishes of nerds. When I bought the US beer Friday, the clerk was fairly knowledgeable - oddly he mentioned he liked Chimay but wouldn't expect he'd like Ommegang. I didn't know what to make of that. He should know that they are quite close either through the brewer's public messaging or through the distributor's product knowledge education program. We don't need any more of the "I am a Craft Brewer" stuff. We need public service announcements that say "this beer tastes like this".

Gary Gillman -

Lew, I'd add that high-end coffee forms a kind of analogy to what the craft beer brewers (some of them) are trying to do. I don't know the proportion of national sales of Starbucks and other specialty coffee retailers, but I would have thought it is higher than the share of national beer sales held by craft brewers. Starbucks is certainly a stronger taste than the domestic coffee norm but it is one millions have adopted. It took some 40 years of trying (Starbucks was founded in 1971), roughly the same period over which craft beer has been developing. At one time I thought Sam Adams Lager might be the taste that would make serious inroads into the mass lager market. Perhaps it will, ultimately (or the Light version). I am not sure about a golden ale and less so a wheat beer. I think a lager is the answer, perhaps something like a milder version of a good Czech pilsener - which Budweiser was to begin with, and who knows how mild it was originally, it may have tasted pretty close to that kind of beer. Anyway, Victory may well in the States have the answer - their Pils is superb and a version of that, perhaps lightened a bit, may capture the public taste in a big way. But it took 100 years for hop rates to fall from pounds per barrel to (in the mass market products) a fraction of that: it will take more time to reverse the trend, however, I think it will happen. The right taste, that is the answer...

Gary

Gary

Mike -

I have to agree with you 100% that for craft beer to get out there and grow more, it has to grow to the people that are not looking for it. Craft beer nerds will drive 100's of miles to get their hands on something new or one of their favorites. But what about the dad's at the ball game or the young family out on the beach?

Well, the other night I saw something that breathed a breath of fresh air into that idea. Near where I live, about 50 minutes there is a city called Detroit Lakes, MN. Right in the heart of the 10,000 Lakes area. This place was actually voted in the top 10 places to spend the 4th of July. I don't remember by who though.

Anyway, this place packs in during the summer. Family after family, couples, singles, locals etc pour into this place to hang out on the beaches. The road in front of the lake turns into a big sidewalk some weekends. Across the street from the beach is this little beer bar called Zorbaz. They make amazing pizza, nachos and other Mexican food. On line there is 48 taps from around the country. Only place I know of in a 100 mile radius of my house that brings in beer from California.

This place is exactly what you are talking about though. It has a great family fun atmosphere, great food and awesome beer. If anyone is going to try something different, this is going to be the place it could happen. The staff is knowledgeable and fun to hang out with, so I could totally see a macro to craft conversion happen behind these doors.

Thanks for the post. It was good brain food and affirmed exactly what I was thinking the other night while I was eating pizza and drinking some Russian River.

Mike
Mike's Brew Review

Roger A. Baylor -

I'll only say that the ballpark example is a bit more problematic than it might seem. I've no idea how things work in Canada, but 'round here, public money goes to build ballparks, after which their occupants assign a monopoly to sports concessionaires for whom the "free market" is foreign, and who demand deep discounts on wholesale pricing to enable 800% mark-ups to the long-suffering ballpark consumer.

Even though pay-for-play is theoretically illegal, it's standard, primarily through massive ad expenditures on the part of megabrewers. It's disgusting.

My point: Hit every mark to deliver a great craft session beer for the ballpark, priced and brewed to precision to suit the dads and couples -- and how do you get it in there without playing the same big-bucks game as the megabrewers?

Apologies, but I reserve the right to detest them.

Lew Bryson -

Roger, I agree -- and weep -- that the concession/exclusion game at big ballparks is a racket. I still remember visiting a friend in Utica, NY, about 25 years ago. He lived about two blocks from the F.X. Matt brewery, and the night I got into town, they had a story on the local news that the AHL franchise in town had signed an exclusivity contract with A-B. I remember to this day how confused and enraged I was; when a town was struggling like Utica was in 1985, why the hell would you screw your local business like that? Why would people buy tickets and beer to support that? It boggles the mind.

But there are ways around it: minor league parks are much more likely to give good deals to craft brewers, and some big league parks do. PNC Park in Pittsburgh gave a very good deal to Penn Brewery when they opened; they wanted to have "local tastes" in the park. Some markets you're screwed, but some work with local businesses.

Alan -

I know the Portland Seadogs have local micros from Maine, too, but there is not enough of this.

Jeff Alworth -

On further reflection, it occurs to me to mention that this hard macro/micro division is a temporal illusion. It exists conceptually, but even now, just 30 years into the craft beer era, it's already fairly compromised. We have faux micros (Blue Moon, etc.) and macro micros (Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams).

What's actually happening is a return to what was, for the entire history of North American brewing, the norm: regional breweries. The consolidation of mid-20th century brewing was really the aberration. I was recently talking to BridgePort's founding brewer, Karl Ockert, and he described the scene when he left Portland for Davis to learn how to brew in the late 70s. There were several regional NW breweries then--Rainier, Olympia, Weinhard's, Heidelberg (and I'm forgetting one). By the time he had his degree, full-scale consolidation was on. Into its place--really, facilitated by this consolidation--came craft brewing. Regional breweries play on regional sympathies. This is a major dimension of sales.

The other dimension, of course, is style diversity and quality. But I could easily imagine the emergence of several major regional craft breweries across the country that fail to get nationwide distribution but still produce a million barrels. Out here, we're well on the way--Deschutes, Widmer, Full Sail, Redhook, and Pyramid all are pretty big breweries. I predict that within 20 years, most of the beer consumed in the NW will be brewed here--not by AB. It won't be the most interesting to craft fans--Widmer Hef, Mirror Pond, FS Session--but it will be a massive improvement on Coors Light, Bud Light, and Miller Lite, the big three of American brewing.

In fact, if you go to a Blazers or Mariners game, you have some outstanding beer choices. And I know that at the Blazers game, the micro FAR outsells the macro. Haven't been to enough Mariners games to make a judgment.

Anyway....

Alan -

Very good points. So maybe the issue is that beer is not beer. By subcategorizing we ignore the pervasive behaviour of buying light ales and lagers and therefore also ignore the issue is that, by ignoring the behaviour, craft brewers are missing the opportunity to meet that demand.

Gary Gillman -

I recall visiting Fred Koch Brewery around the same time Lew mentioned he was in Utica, 1985, and some in the town wondered why I came so far to seek it out. Its porter actually was excellent, from a Vaux (of England) recipe no less, one of the best in America then, but I gathered the locals didn't drink much of it. The base for the Fred Koch beers was declining in general and the brewery closed not too long afterwards.

There was a tendency then not to boost the local brewery, it's different now but that attitude did often exist then unjust as it seems to us today. F.X Matt had the ability to change with the times and it's one of my favourite breweries still. Last time I was in Utica you could still get Maximus Super (I am aging myself here), of course the range of offerings is much wider now. Still, I have a soft spot for beers like that and even Utica Club Cream Ale. I'll be in Syracuse soon and will seek out the old and new of old Utica, NY (thanks, Alan, for those local beer references in the other thread, and sorry to hear of the passing of the founder of Gale's Grocery).

Gary

Jeff Alworth -

I just saw a tweet that reminded me of this thread. When asked to select from among 12 micros, <a href=http://www.asylum.com/2010/05/19/best-next-beer-which-microbrew-should-take-over-the-nation/>readers of Asylum Mag (?) voted</a> ... Fat Tire. Most of the other nominees had what beer geeks would far more character, but in the end, people were interested in a more approachable beer. I expect we'll never see large percentages of the public knocking back Ommegang Abbey Ale.

The other nominees: AleSmith Anvil ESB, Alpha King, B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout, Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, Brooklyn Lager, Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Lagunitas IPA, New Belgium Fat Tire, Ommegang Abbey Ale, Stone Pale Ale, Surly Furious.

Ed Carson -

"So maybe the issue is that beer is not beer"
For some brewing companies, beer is a commodity and a marketing exercise. For others, it is a method of expression and a work of art. And I'm not sure where the balance point lies.