Category Archives: brewery

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.

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.

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!

Craft Beer: More Costly. Better Value.

When spending more makes sense.


To borrow from Sam Calagione’s business philosophy in Brewing Up a Business, it strikes me that education has to be a very large component of the expansion of the craft beer movement beyond the realm of the enthusiast. One reason that the consumer needs to be educated is because craft beer costs more, on average, than industrial commodity beer. If the consumer merely sees “Beer 1” and “Beer 2,” and Beer 2 is cheaper, then the rational decision is to buy Beer 2. Aside from price, the consumer doesn’t know the difference between the two products. Beer is just beer.

The craft beer community must continue its efforts at education in order to give the consumer a reason to buy Beer 1 where Beer 1 is the pricier craft beer and Beer 2 is the industrial commodity beer. The question then becomes what sort of education is necessary, or desirable. Now let me stop here and acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people who will never be ardent craft beer drinkers. That’s fine. I don’t judge them negatively. If they like to drink Bud Light that’s their business. All I will do is kindly tell them that I think there is beer out there that is a better value, even if it costs more. If they choose to inquire further, then I am more than willing to explain myself.

Also, I will acknowledge that for some, beer is merely a means to a drunken end. That’s also fine. As long you don’t hurt anybody but yourself I couldn’t care less. I will however advise you that there are cheaper and more efficient means to reach your desired result (read: clear liquor).

I suppose craft beer education for me comes down to a single concept: value. Every effort at education must be geared towards letting the consumer know why craft beer is a better value even though it’s more costly, perhaps even because it’s more costly (two italicized words in one sentence, eek!).

Why do I find craft beer more valuable than industrial commodity beer? First, craft beer has personality. I don’t just mean the hop-related pun names or the label art or the fact that the beer is generally more flavorful. What I mean is that there are people behind craft beer, rather than mega-corporations whose main goal is to raise their stock price. Where craft beer is your local restaurant whose owner cares about the food coming out of the kitchen, industrial beer is McDonald’s, a faceless entity churning out low-cost, low-flavor food designed more to make money than it is to satiate. In other words, part of the value of craft beer is knowing that my dollar is going to a person who cares about what they make.

Another portion of the value quotient is enjoyment. As I said above, if your enjoyment is derived solely from getting blitzed, there are better ways to “enjoy” (and they’re cheaper too). However, if you care about the contents of your glass and want to drink something that not only slakes your thirst, but dazzles your tastebuds, craft beer, almost regardless of cost, is a higher value proposition. Here’s how I explain it. Let’s take a six-pack of Budweiser and a six-pack of Deschutes Black Butte Porter. Each sixer contains 72 ounces of beer and roughly the same amount of alcohol (making degree of possible intoxication a nullity as far as decision-making goes). Let’s say Bud is on sale for $4.99 a six-pack and Black Butte is going for $8.99. I’m buying Black Butte every time because I derive greater value from Black Butte.

I will not enjoy a single ounce of that Bud sixer. Thus, every cent of that $4.99 is flushed down the drain as far as I’m concerned. However, I am virtually guaranteed to enjoy every ounce of my $8.99 sixer of Black Butte. Thus, it is a much better value. Beer is a luxury, not a necessity. No one needs to buy beer to live. So, if you’re going to spend money on beer, shouldn’t your dollar go farther? If thirst-quenching is the motive, buy a soda. If getting drunk is your motive, buy hard liquor. However, if your goal is to truly enjoy the beverage in your glass (and maybe catch a little buzz, which I willingly admit is quite pleasant) then your money is better spent on craft beer than industrial beer.

“But Alex,” you say, “I can get twice as much Bud as I can Black Butte.” I say, you’re missing the point. When drinking a beer with full flavor, satisfaction can come in a few ounces, rather than a few bottles. Greater enjoyment of the beer itself makes the beer a better value and also argues for more moderate consumption.

Let’s say you agree with me that craft beer tastes better, but you still can’t justify the cost. I would answer that good ingredients, and more of them, cost more money. You don’t expect to pay the price of a gourmet burger at McD’s. And why not? Because the components of the burger are of a lower quality and the labor to make the burger was cheaper and McD’s has no ambience and no personality. The same is true of your beer. Industrial beer is often made with one of the cheapest commodities there is in America: corn. The government subsidizes corn production to the point where farmers have no choice but to grow it. Since the price is artificially depressed, it makes a great substitute for barley; that is, if you don’t really care what your beer tastes like and you’re merely trying to capitalize on economies of scale.

Craft beer on the other hand, makes a point of using the best ingredients. Craft brewers must take this approach in order to ensure that their beer tastes good, because they can’t compete on price. Do some of them use corn occasionally? Sure. But they do so because it helps them achieve a certain flavor, not because they want to produce their product as cheaply as possible. They also generally use a helluvalot more hops than industrial brewers. Hops are expensive, but they contribute oodles of flavor and aroma in the hands of a talented brewer. Craft beer thus justifies its cost many times over.

So you say you can’t afford craft beer all the time and you want some booze in your life. That’s fine. Grab a handle of vodka. Take a few shots. Problem solved. Way cheaper per ounce of alcohol than buying industrial beer. However, if you aim to truly enjoy the product in your glass (and catch a little buzz), then buy craft beer (or fine spirits, which I also enjoy; pick your poison). You’ll spend more money, but you’ll get a better value.

Local Intrigue

Russian River Redemption w/ Father’s Office Forest Mushroom Salad


Okay, I’ll admit it. I drink a lot of craft beer. I drink craft beer pretty much every day. I love craft beer. Oh wait, this is starting to sound like the “I am a Craft Beer Drinker” video. My apologies (shameless plug: I’m the first person in the video). One of the few things I love more than craft beer is pairing craft beer with great food. I often find such pairings in my own kitchen, but there are plenty of times when those pairings occur in local restaurants and gastropubs. I’ve decided that I’m going to share these experiences with you in a series of “when I feel like it” posts under the title “Local Intrigue.” Hopefully you live close by and can try them for yourselves. Perhaps you don’t live close by. It is my hope that these pairings will inspire you to find your own just the same. That said, let’s get to the meat of this post.

I live very close to Father’s Office (“FO”) in Santa Monica. It’s a little over a mile away. I can either bike or walk there very comfortably. It is little wonder then that I often find myself sampling their wares. Most folks go there for the burger. I will concede that it is a tasty morsel. However, it has a lot of huge flavors and can overwhelm any beverage that hangs on the subtler end of the flavor spectrum. The burger demands a big beer, something for which I am not always in the mood.

Enter the rest of the menu. It is my opinion (and that of several of my cohorts) that the rest of the food at FO outshines the burger. I found myself there on a Saturday afternoon, before heading into Library Alehouse for my shift, grabbing a beer or two. I always look for the seasonal dishes at FO, having already worked my way through the regular menu. This time, I found the Forest Mushroom Salad. It has greens, sautéed/caramelized mushrooms and onions, Niman Ranch bacon, Spanish chevre and basil vinaigrette. Once I saw “bacon” and “chevre” I knew I had to have it.

But what to pair it with? I found my muse in Russian River Redemption, a Belgian Blonde par excellence. It is dry, crackery and spicy. I thought it a perfect counterpoint.

RedemptionCropped

Boy was I right! When faced with the fairly rich likes of bacon, chevre and sautéed mushrooms and onions, I favor contrasting pairings. I like to cleanse the palate and ease the “weight” of the dish. I also thought the basil vinaigrette would be nice with the herbal/spicy character of the beer. The dry, crackery character of the beer cut through the fat of the dressing and bacon perfectly, pairing nicely with the tang from the cheese and easing the sweetness of the onion. The finish was pure harmony, the herbal character of the dressing and the greens augmenting the spicy hop character of the beer. It was twenty minutes of dining bliss. I highly recommend you get down there while both the dish and the beer are still available. If the beer isn’t, they also have locally-produced (they brew in Irvine, CA) Brouwerij West Belgian-Style Blond – 5, which is the only other Blond I’ve had that belongs in Redemption’s league. We’ve already carried Brouwerij West’s Blond at Library Alehouse. I can’t wait until we have it again. It pairs beautifully with the Ahi Burger, but more on that next time. What are some of the pairings you’ve found at your local beer haunts?