Beer Displays and Brand Equity

You probably don’t notice it. It flies under the radar. The phenomenon of which I speak? The organization of the beer fridge in bottle shops.

To start this discussion, let’s examine the way wine is organized in most any given bottle shop or market. You walk in and you see shelf-talkers or hanging signs that all have a varietal on them. “Cabernet Sauvignon” is over here, “Pinot Noir” is over there, etc, etc, so on and so forth. Region and producer are most often ignored in favor of easy categorization.

The beer fridge however, tends to reveal a bit more variation. If you go to a supermarket, you’ll most often find a wall of two or three macrobrewer products (in many different packaging formats) that create the banner effect these companies covet in such retail outlets. What craft beer they carry tends to be organized by brewery. This of course applies only where they carry more than one beer from a given brewery.

Where we see a bit more variation is in bottle shops (those places whose focus is beer, wine and spirits). It is in these stores that the wine approach sometimes takes over the beer fridge. Rather than seeing all of a brewery’s product in one place, things get spread out by style. Tripels over here, IPA’s over there, Stouts all in one place, etc, etc, so on and so forth.

The question becomes, what to make of this? Having seen the brand-building power of social media in the craft beer world, I can’t help but worry a bit about the effect that organization by style may have. As far as wine goes, people tend to purchase by varietal, rather than by winemaker. In beer however, people still base their purchases heavily upon brewery.

If you enter a shop organized by style and want to buy a couple things from Ballast Point, you have to go to the IPA section to get Sculpin and the Porter section to get Black Marlin. Not good for the consumer, not good for the brewery. Obviously, if you’re looking to try a bunch of IPA, then its easier if the beer is organized by style, but I don’t believe such organization is good for craft brewers in the long term.

Organization by style completely destroys brand equity in the eyes and mind of the consumer. Rather than recognizing a bunch of beers from a given brewery, all the consumer sees is a bunch of Pale Ales. Breweries all have their own strengths and their own unique personalities. Many of them have used Social Media to let consumers get to know them, their philosophies and their personalities. They have spent a tremendous amount of time and resources defining themselves to the consumer.

Working in the beer industry, I find that more people ask what beers are available from “Brewery X” at a given time rather than what beers of a particular style are available. This is especially true at better beer bars, whose focus is a variety of style. You’re unlikely to find more than one Witbier or Porter on tap. However, customers consistently ask questions like, “What do you have from Stone?” or “What’s on tap from Russian River?” These and many other breweries have built a reputation for brewing excellent beer and customers will often drink whatever beer happens to be available from that brewery, regardless of style.

When bottle shops spread beer out by style, they degrade this brand equity and unknowingly move beer consumers into a frame of mind that mirrors wine consumers. Brand starts to matter less than style. Craft brewers and sellers of craft beer must be aware of this phenomenon and fight it. Craft brewers need to maintain brand equity. Sellers of craft beer must realize that they can leverage that equity to sell more beer. Put a brewery’s beer all in one place and you’ll sell more of that brewery’s beer. Do this for every brewery and the math does itself. You sell more beer and you create customers that are more loyal to a given brewery and a given bottle shop. It makes sense for everyone.

Photo Credit: Mike Beningo

The Goose Island Sale: Another Reason to Go Local

Like many others, I was none too pleased to hear of Anheuser-Busch/InBev’s purchase of Goose Island. However, I was less concerned with Goose Island’s motivations than I was with AB/InBev’s. As far as Goose Island goes, Greg and John Hall were understandably weary from running the day-to-day operations of a business for as long as they had. They wanted the company to grow and needed an infusion of capital. No problems there.

However, knowing what I know of AB/InBev’s sales strategies, I will likely stop buying what little Goose Island product I already did. My previous purchases consisted entirely of Bourbon County Stout, Sofie, Pere Jacques and Juliet so I won’t put much of a dent in the bottom line, but I will miss those products. What are the motivations behind my new shopping strategy? Well, as far as I can tell, AB/InBev bought Goose Island for two reasons. Firstly, Goose Island is an attractive, profitable commodity with lots of room for growth. It’s a great addition to AB/InBev’s portfolio. Secondly, AB/InBev seems to be trying to shore up its slipping market share by snatching up one of the companies that put a decent-sized dent into that market share in the Midwest.

In other words, if I buy a Goose Island product now, the profits go into AB/InBev’s coffers (to at least some degree). I cannot abide such an outcome. Go to the supermarket beer section and you’ll find out why. See that giant wall of Bud Light products? How many different formats do you count? Ten? Twelve? Fifteen? The “wall of product” sales strategy is despicable. Glass bottles, aluminum bottles, aluminum cans, all of various sizes, all in boxes and packs of different quantity, all limiting consumer choice (taking shelf space from competitors) by flooding the market with a load of different formats that all contain THE SAME PRODUCT! It makes me a little sick to my stomach.

But I’m not all that worried that I won’t buy Goose Island products anymore. Surely some in the Midwest, for whom Goose Island is a regular purchase, will experience greater difficulty. In my case though, I will simply continue to focus on the plethora of world-class, local products readily available for my consumption. I need only look a couple hours to South to San Diego to find Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey, Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, etc, etc, ad infinitum. One can likely make the same argument in the Midwest. There is no shortage of non-AB/InBev-owned breweries in the middle of the country turning out well-made, readily available craft beer.

My point, then, is simple. In the short term, the sale of Goose Island is really much ado about nothing. As long as those who care about where their money goes keep themselves educated, they can make informed purchases. If you don’t care about AB/InBev’s sales strategies, then you needn’t change a thing. If you do care about those sales strategies, and they make you a little queasy, then don’t buy beer from companies in which AB/InBev holds a stake.

In the long term, I suppose we’ll see whether AB/InBev tries to use Goose Island as a means to muscle smaller beer producers out of the market. If they do, I am confident that there will be a strong consumer pushback. There are few, if any, consumer bases that are better or more informed than the craft beer-drinking public. And their ranks are growing every day. People care more than ever about where their purchases are coming from and where their money is going because it’s easier to find out than ever before. The internet, and the ready availability of relatively reliable information is the great equalizer for smaller companies whose focus is quality and integrity. Let’s hope those companies continue to leverage the internet and social media to get their message out and keep the public well (and accurately) informed.

Photo Credit: AB/InBev Goose Mock-Up: Girl’s Guide to Beer

Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

You’ve heard the names ad nauseum in the craft beer world. Darkness, Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. These are beers crafted in (necessarily) small batches from very well-respected breweries. They have dates on the calendar dedicated to their releases. They are the subjects of post after post (after post, after post) on beer-related internet fora. They can command sums 10 times their purchase price on eBay. And that’s all awesome. It’s great to see that type of interest in craft beer.

But these beers are also sources of alienation, consternation and anger. People who wait in line for hours for them are nonetheless precluded from purchasing them. People who wake up early and hit “refresh” constantly on a website to obtain release day tickets are shut out by those with faster internet connections. Those less fortunate inevitably take to the internet to call out the brewery or bar that wasn’t able to get them the beer they so desperately desired. It’s a bad situation for all involved.

There is no beer that exemplifies this dichotomy of experience better than Pliny the Younger. The Triple IPA produced by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA seems to have a life of its own. Those who are able to obtain it feel as though the clouds have parted, bathing them in the light of the divine. Those who are unable, well, let’s just say they don’t feel that way.

Getting the beer usually involves a long wait in a line outside of a bar that has previously announced the date and time at which the beer will be tapped. This is where the problem starts. In this case, the demand far outstrips the supply. If the bar is lucky, the 5-gallon keg it gets will serve around 55-60 people (and that’s a BIG maybe). When faced with a line of 100+, there is no avoiding the fact that some people are going to walk away disappointed.

But how disappointed ought they be? That depends on a number of factors. The first that ought to be noted is the transparency of the establishment serving the beer. The bar runs the risk of losing some business by telling people that everyone past “Person X” in line won’t get the beer. However, one could argue that a lot more business is lost in pissed off customers if someone waits in line without knowing how much beer there is to go around.

Assuming the bar has told those waiting that there are “x” number of pours available, then the patrons are able to make an informed decision. If people still get angry, it’s because the specter of entitlement has reared its ugly head. Somewhere along the line, a number of beer geeks (a term I generally employ affectionately) decided that they should have access to every beer they desire. When they are shut out, they use any number of disparaging terms for the brewery, bar or proprietor in question. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Either way, objectivity is usually tossed out the window.

And this is the real issue with beer hype. On the one hand, it’s great to see a bunch of interest in craft beer. The mere fact that people would wait for hours to obtain a single beer is testament to the ever-growing popularity of the product. On the other hand, such hype leads to a host of unintended consequences.

For neophytes who are just getting into craft beer, the difficulty of dealing with such releases paints a skewed picture of the industry. Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. It’s about supporting an industry that gives a damn about its customers. But if your experience of the industry begins and ends with waiting in line for Pliny the Younger, you probably won’t be around for long if you aren’t able to obtain any.

For those who are already full-fledged enthusiasts, the view also becomes skewed. Sure, Pliny the Younger is a wonderful beer. It is clearly world class, and probably the best in its “style.” However, there are a ton of other beers that are probably as good, or at least close, that can be readily obtained. No lines. No disappointment. No reason to be pissed off. Also, there’s something to be said for discovering the next awesome beer rather than braving the masses to drink one that everyone already knows is good. This part of the chase gets lost in the hype.

There is no elegant solution for this issue. The brewers literally can’t make enough of their most hyped beers. If they are higher in alcohol or sour (and they usually are), they just take too long to make. In order to produce more, the brewery would have to sacrifice its financial wellbeing and also its core brands in the process. Understandably, they’d rather a lot of people enjoy beer they can readily produce than appease a few more myopic rare beer chasers.

So it comes down to this. If you go chasing a beer like Pliny the Younger, know what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll wait in a long line. You may not get the beer. But look on the bright side. You’ll be at a beer bar. There will be other awesome stuff to drink. And you’ll be around a lot of like-minded individuals. If you don’t chase after it, you can take solace in the huge world of incredible beer that is otherwise currently available. The explosion of craft beer in America has made it possible for most to obtain a world-class beer merely by stepping down to the local bottle shop. So go take that trip and revel in how lucky you are to live in a world where it’s ridiculously easy to find great beer.

Beer in the Kitchen: Doppelbock Whipped Yams

To those who regularly make an effort to pair beer with food, it is no secret that beer is the most versatile beverage on the planet in that respect. It has a wide range of texture and weight and it also has a broader flavor range than wine. Only in beer can you find true bitterness and sourness (although tannin and acidity in certain wines can come close). While I will concede that wine is certainly the victor when it comes to dishes with tomato-based sauces, beer will usually equal or best wine for most other pairings.

I love pairing my food with beer, but even more exciting than that is making my food with beer. With The Beer Wench and Sean Paxton as inspirations, I’ve been tooling around in the kitchen quite a bit lately and I’d like to share the ideas and recipes that work well for me. This week I’m bringing you Doppelbock Whipped Yams.

I am a Los Angeles native, and as long as I can remember, my family and I have been going to Greenblatt’s Deli on New Year’s Day. They have great deli food and it’s one of the only places open that day. Every time we go, I get the turkey dinner with whipped yams as a side. They spice the yams just right and the whipped texture works really well with this particular tuber.

I wanted to duplicate the dish at home but I wanted to add a little punch, so I decided to boil the yams in beer rather than plain ol’ water. But what beer to choose? Can’t go with anything too bitter since this is a sweeter dish and heat really brings out the bitterness. I wanted something that would marry naturally with the texture and flavor of the yams. Then the light bulb went on . . . Doppelbock!

I hustled over to BevMo and grabbed myself a sixer of Spaten Optimator. Malty, bready and a little chewy with some light toast character, I had a good feeling it would have what I was looking for. I’ve made and served the dish several times now (it was a hit at Christmas dinner) and it never disappoints, so without further ado:

Ingredients

  • 2-3 lbs garnet yams, peeled and cut into two inch chunks
  • 2 12oz bottles of Doppelbock (Optimator is my choice, but just make sure you pick one that hasn’t been “Americanized” with excessive hop character)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 stick of butter, room temperature
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2-3 tsp nutmeg (depending on your tastes, personally, I freaking love nutmeg)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon (you can use less, I also really like cinnamon)
  • Salt to taste

Directions

Place your peeled and cut yams into a large pot and pour in both bottles of beer (you’ve probably got four left in the six-pack so treat yourself to one as well). If the beer doesn’t quite cover the yams, top off the pot with water until the yams are completely covered.

Place the pot, covered, over high heat and bring liquid to a boil. Boil for 15-20 minutes, or until yams are very soft. Drain liquid in a strainer and place drained yams back into pot.

Throw your butter in the pot and combine it with the yams by mashing with a potato ricer until yams are mostly smooth. Next, toss in your brown sugar and vanilla extract and combine well (a large spoon should suffice).

Add nutmeg and cinnamon and whip on high with an electric eggbeater. Once whipped, have yourself a little taste so you can figure out how much salt you want to add. I find the salt really serves to bring out the sweeter flavors nicely, and I’ll usually add about half a teaspoon of table salt. Whip in the salt and serve! This dish is a wonderful change from standard mashed potatoes and can accompany roast chicken, turkey or my personal favorite, bison brisket. Enjoy!

Yours Truly on New Brew Thursday at Library Alehouse! (Video)

Check out the video, where we drink Kern River Brewing Citra DIPA and pair it with some wonderful Alehouse food. I think it’s pretty rad. Be sure to click the links on the right to New Brew Thursday and Library Alehouse.

What do you mean you want a “light” beer?

You’ve heard it dozens of times (if not more). You’re sitting at the bar at your local purveyor of fermented beverage and someone walks up to order a beer. Bewildered by a selection of beers whose names and tap handles are unfamiliar, that someone says to the bartender, “Just give me something light.”

Here’s where the trouble starts. What the hell does “light” mean? For most, “light” is a color descriptor. A lot of folks have the common misperception that color provides an accurate indication of the strength, mouthfeel and degree of flavor in a given beer. This probably has mostly to do with the fact that Guinness is served nitrogenated. While Guinness is a comparatively small beer by ABV (4.2%), nitrogenation gives it a heavier mouthfeel, thus giving people the perception that it is a heavy beer (when it in fact has less calories than Budweiser).

The “light” phenomenon described above probably also has to do with the pale straw color of most mass-produced American lagers. These beers have very little body, very little alcohol and very little flavor. Further, they are the American beers with which most people are familiar. However, there are beers of similar color, such as Berliner Weisse, which have a comparatively huge amount of flavor. There are also beers of similar color (close enough anyway) that have a ton more body and more than double the alcohol, such as Belgian Tripels. Given the existence of such beers, perhaps “light” isn’t the best choice of words when describing what one wants at a bar.

Given the misconceptions of the general public, one must divine what “light” means. Firstly, people tend to be afraid of “dark” beers for one reason or another (again, Guinness probably has a lot to do with it). It stands to reason that people want a beer that’s light in color. But we can’t stop there. It is not however, a problem to work within the “light” color parameter (that issue can be worked out later).

What does “light” say about other preferences? As far as flavor goes it does not necessarily mean that someone wants less flavor. It may just mean that the beer drinker wants lighter, more delicate flavors. In other words, a Tripel and an IPA may be close to each other in color, but the person who asked for a “light” beer will probably be more pleased with the Tripel. The huge bitterness of an American IPA is often one of the final flavor frontiers conquered by the nascent craft beer enthusiast. However, the delicate, fruity esters and generally dry character of a Tripel may be right up someone’s alley.

Mouthfeel is an issue too. The person ordering a “light” beer probably wants one that doesn’t have too much weight. That’s fine. There are plenty of flavorful, pale-colored beers that don’t coat the mouth and punch the palate. An exemplar is Allagash White. Outside of Pierre Celis, there is no finer Belgian-Style Witbier in production. It has huge, spicy, fruity flavor but it also dances on the tongue and has a crisp, dry finish. It is the ultimate gateway beer and one that anyone ordering a “light” beer ought to be thrilled with.

So next time that hapless soul wends his or her way to the bar and asks for a “light” beer, be a mensch and ask them what they mean by “light.” Are they talking about color? Weight? Alcohol? Flavor? There are enough places out there where a craft beer enthusiast knows more than (or isn’t as busy as) the staff and can provide a great recommendation to a future craft beer convert if only the neophyte is asked to elaborate.

Cheers!

Of Silly Laws and Little Beers

If you pay attention to matters alcohol-related, then you’ve probably read about the law in Colorado that effectively makes it illegal to sell any beer under 4% alcohol at a bar. Bars in Colorado are only allowed to sell “malt beverages,” while grocery stores may only sell “beer,” which is a malt beverage under 4% under the law. The law wasn’t seriously enforced up to now but grocery stores seem intent on protecting their right to be the exclusive retailers of high-volume, light beers. They want to capitalize on a monopoly over the beers that sell the most. The law has received further coverage from the Denver Post and Jay Brooks. No more boring details from me for now.

What this law has done on a smaller level is bring the notion of session beer to the fore in the minds of the beer-drinking public, and especially in the mind of this writer. In countries like England, where brewers are taxed roughly on the strength of their beer, session beers (beers whose ABV hovers around 4% or less) are the norm. Up until recently, craft beer in America has taken the opposite approach. Determined to differentiate themselves from the large brewers of light lagers, American craft brewers started out brewing higher-ABV beers with huge hop flavor (with Arrogant Bastard as the exemplar).

Drinkers of craft beer tend to take a similar tack. When they start out, they seek out the biggest, most brash beers they can find. Exotic ingredients and huge hop bills are prized. Barrel-aging causes a rush of excitement and anything with a double-digit ABV must be tried. However, the palate gets weary after a time. The drinker grows tired of being beaten about the head with monstrous amounts of expressive flavor. A more nuanced, integrated beer is in order. Enter session beer.

Session beer is a many-splendored thing. Firstly, it is a medium in which the brewer can truly show off his/her talent. It is a lot easier to cram a lot of flavor into a high-ABV highly-hopped beer than it is to make a 4% beer equally interesting. There is something particularly pleasurable about finding a mountain of flavor in a molehill of a beer. The drinker can tell that the brewer took particular care in the production of the beer.

Further, session beer is a means to interest the “unconverted” in craft beer. While ardent craft beer drinkers gravitate to meaty, high-ABV brews, not everyone is ready for those titanic beers right away. However, a well-made session beer is the perfect opportunity for a brewer to dispel the “dark beer is heavy and thick” myth. A sub-5% Nut Brown or Dark Mild with wonderful bready, toasty flavors, a light mouthfeel and crisp, dry finish can instantly put any fear of “dark” beer to bed.

Session beer can also be more food friendly. If you’ve read Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, then you know that matching intensity of flavor is generally the way to go when it comes to food and beer pairing. It takes a lot of robust flavor to stand up to the biting bitterness of a Double IPA or the huge chocolate and roast flavors of an Imperial Stout. Most food is not up to the task. Food, like beer, can lose a lot of nuance when it is made simply to have more flavor, rather than good flavor. Delicate food demands beer that is equally subtle. Further, if one is holding a multi-course pairing dinner, lower-ABV beer is often the way to go. Palate fatigue can be staved off and your guests won’t get as inebriated as quickly. No pairing will suffer because of its predecessor.

Also of particular interest to me, session beer is an excellent choice for those who need to drive, ride a bike, or just do something that requires use of your brain after drinking. Those who cannot get drunk should not be relegated to drinking the likes of carbonated alcohol water. Well-made session beer is a boon to those who wish to enjoy a beer with lunch, at dinner with children, before a bike ride and to those who must drive somewhere after imbibing. This particular point brings to light one of the more ridiculous unintended consequences of CO’s legislation: taking sub-4% beer out of the hands of those who must drive after leaving the bar.

If you’re not convinced yet, here’s a small list of some awesome beers to try that fall into the loosely-defined session beer category:

AleSmith Nautical Nut Brown (5.0% ABV): Probably the best brown ale I’ve ever had. Toasty bread with wonderful caramel notes and a creamy, rich mouthfeel.

Eagle Rock Solidarity Black Mild (3.8% ABV): A delightful litter number. Black in hue with garnet highlights. Light on the palate, with a crisp finish, this beer has notes of cocoa and pretzel bread.

The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse (3.1% ABV): Perfect summer beer. Brewed with wheat composing a large proportion of the grist, the beer is highly carbonated, lemony and delightfully tart. Loads of flavor for the ABV and incredibly quenching. Can also be served with raspberry or woodruff syrup

Brasserie Dupont Avril (3.5% ABV): Take the earth, light funk and crisp pale fruit flavor that you love in Saison Dupont and miniaturize it. You’ll have Avril. This is a great table beer and will pair will with nearly anything that isn’t huge.

Cheers!