16 Dec 2009 @ 4:57 PM 
 

The Mythical “Gateway Beer”

 

Ah, the gateway beer. You see the term all the time. It’s a term stolen from “gateway drug,” generally referring to the beer that will turn someone from BMC lite lagers to good, craft beer in a “if you have this, you’ll probably step up to the other stuff later” kind of way. But does it really exist?

I’ve made reference to a gateway beer here before, in reference to Blue Moon. And even the good folks at Ad Age, in their bullshit craft beer psychographics column mentioned that “Blue Moon drinkers probably don’t know it’s a Molson Coors Brewing Co. family product made in Colorado” which, to me, suggests that even they’re thinking of it as a gateway beer, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not so cool on the idea.

A quick Google search comes up with Guinness, Smithwicks, Sam Adams Boston Lager, and even New Glarus Spotted Cow as examples of gateway beers, and I’ve run into a few moderately sexist blog posts wherein people suggest that women either have no taste buds or only enjoy fruit-flavored things. They suggest gateway beers that include Corona, Heinekin Light, Red Stripe, Sapporo, Stella Artois, Lindemans Framboise, Fruli or (and this is my favorite) Sol.

Sol? Really? Guatemalan light lager?

The last woman who told me point blank what beer converted her to craft beer was said it was Stone Arrogant Bastard. I’d hardly call that a “gateway.” I, personally, have converted multiple people to good beer on Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze Vielle alone.

Sol, indeed.

But! It illustrates a point. For whatever reason, people seem to think that craft beer is something that you have to be trained into. You can’t just jump into liking it, you have to step yourself in through small points of slightly less shitty beer. It’s like walking into the swimming pool slowly because the water isn’t really cold and you’re afraid of getting comfortable too quickly.

I deny this. I think all of this stepping stone stuff is total nonsense. Is there a gateway wine? How many people that start with Night Train graduate to $130 bottles of aged Bordeaux by going through those 2L bottles of crappy grocery store merlot? No. You never hear someone saying, “Mussels are great, but you may like them more if you take an intro path through imitation crab, first.” Please.

If someone’s going to like craft beer, they’re going to like it. If you really feel like they need convincing then educate them and give them something good, don’t give them slightly less shitty beer than they’ve tried before.

I’ve written before that finding beer for people is an individualized process that involves finding out what flavors people actually like, and I want to reinforce that.

Gateway beers are a myth. We don’t need them.

Beer has a vast multitude of flavors and is incredibly accessible. It just needs you, as the person who enjoys it, to adequately explain why it’s good, instead of cheaping out on people and giving them a Blue Moon when you could be giving them a Hennepin, a Guinness when you could be giving them an Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, or a Sol instead of.. well.. c’mon.. anything else. On the other hand, you can’t just give them your favorite beer because they are different than you. It doesn’t matter of they’re a man or a woman, black or white or brown or purple or whatever. What they will want out of a beer is going to be different based on their personal experiences and personal tastes. Those might lend themselves toward fruit and light lager, but they may also lend themselves toward coffee, or chocolate, or sours, or strong bitterness, or piney flavors or so damn many other things.

Don’t shortchange their experience by trying to trudge them in through the shallow end of the pool; let them take a dive. Just show them where to jump from and be ready to act as a lifeguard.

Tags Tags: , ,
Categories: appreciation
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 16 Dec 2009 @ 04 57 PM

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Responses to this post » (31 Total)

 
  1. Chris Shields says:

    HEAR HEAR!!
    I wholeheartedly agree. Think about craft beer drinkers you know… they don’t all move toward some “End of the line/Nirvana” single perfect beer, so why would we give everyone the same “gateway beer”? Craft beer drinkers thrive in the diversity of styles and flavors, each person enjoying particular beers/styles/experiences. I agree that the blame for “gateway beer” falls on the craft beer lovers and our tendency to “ease” people into drinking great beer and our fear of scaring people off from beer. We need to step up and explain, “You may not like this one, but you WILL love one of them.” to the uninitiated- then give them a real beer!

  2. WORD.

    A woman of a certain age who happened to be a state legislator told me she didn’t like beer. Until she had a two-year-old North Coast Old Stock Ale (10% ABV) paired with blue cheese. Turns out she was a scotch drinker who never knew beer could be so malty and complex.

  3. Brad says:

    While I agree that “gateway beers” shouldn’t be in all cases necessary for attracting people to craft beer or helping them to understand and appreciate it, I can’t deny that gateway beers do exist as a practical category and can be powerful in bringing new connoisseurs into the fold.

    I do believe there is something to be said, for some people, for gradually easing one’s self into increasingly flavorful beers. Why, there was a time when I myself thought Dundee’s Honey Brown was a big-boy beer; and a time before that when I thought Boston Lager was too over-the-top with flavor for my naive palate and I couldn’t take it.

    I used to tend bar at a major draft house. We had people coming in all the time who weren’t interested in any of our exotic offerings, but dammit if they wouldn’t give something like Blue Moon or Real Ale Fireman’s #4 a shot — and in the latter case, particularly, take a liking to it in spite of themselves. It’s a start. Some of these people might be able to dive right into the deep end without going the slow way; still others, I’m positive, do need to get their palates accustomed to bolder flavors bits at a time.

    At any rate, the fact is that since many of the beers that would qualify for “gateway” status are also mass-produced and mass-marketed (and hence, “safer”), craft virgins are naturally more likely to encounter something like a Blue Moon or Sam Adams than the more out-there brews that we hope they’ll eventually work up to.

  4. erik says:

    I don’t think it’s their palates that needs to get accustomed, I think it’s their minds.

    I mean, sure. Your palate changes as you experience things. I remember thinking that drinking Guinness was like having a meal. Now I think it’s watery. I don’t think that it’s progression in beer enjoyment that’s brought me there, but I’ve had many other examples of stouts now, so my experience with Guinness is now different.

    Craft virgins are more likely to encounter something like a Blue Moon or Sam Adams than some of the crazier brews, yes, but if you think about it, there’s a lot more of that stuff around than, say, Old Rasputin. It’s a numbers game.

    Does that make those “gateway beers” or safer? Or are they just the easiest way for somebody to try something new on their own?

    I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be trying these things and easing their own way in. If you’re carving your own way, then you need to do what’s comfortable for yourself, but I think it’s ridiculous for anybody who knows what good beer is to recommend a “safe” beer for someone to try to get them into good craft beer that is anything less than excellent.

  5. Keith says:

    One of my favorite lines when serving beer at a festival is when one of those high-heel chicks comes up to you saying, “What’s your lightest beer?” I like to say, “Do you like coffee?” Most of the time they admit that they do, and then I pour them the stout. And suddenly they realize that they never really understood beer.

    So all in all, I totally agree that the gateway is largely up to the individual. It could be DFH120 or it could be Honey Brown.

  6. Brad says:

    By “safer” I was referring to how large brewers approach playing the pseudo-craft game: making sure the beer is, in most cases, bland enough to have broad appeal and not push the envelope in any real measure as far as we craft lovers are concerned. Now, I think many of us would say that this approach does craft beer, and even the “gateway beer” drinker, a disservice by passing off a product that is inferior to what real, good beer can be.

    But an appropriate question is, do these “beginner crafts” sell well strictly because of the marketing and distribution heft behind them — that is, in spite of their inferior or inadequate qualities — or do they sell well because there truly is organic demand for these products and mainstream-beer drinkers really do feel more comfortable trading up to something like a Blue Moon or a Shiner Bock?

    And if the latter is the case, just think of how much more successful people would be in discovering the world of full-flavored beer if they had some of the truly stellar, world-class styles and varieties of intermediate-level beers to get started off on. It is a shame that in the U.S., beers that could and should be serving a valuable purpose fail to live up to the obligation this role demands, offering mediocrity as if quality and accessibility were mutually exclusive.

  7. Kevin says:

    I think that too often we beer geeks get wrapped around the axle around taste when we think about ‘gateway beer.’ To my mind, that term has / should have more to do with the economics of craft beer than it does the complexity of the most extreme styles.

    While the stories about someone who never liked beer finding joy in some wonderful craft beer are always fun, I don’t think that it makes economic sense for craft brewers to be trying to reach those consumers (at least not consciously). The term implies you should be convincing those reaching for a 12-pack of Bud Light or PBR that instead they should be reaching for a 6-pack of craft beer. I don’t think this is realistic in the majority of cases.

    The deep end of the flavor pool also happens to intersect the deep end of our wallets. I don’t think it likely that 80% of beer drinkers in the U.S. are going to casually drop $12 for a 22oz bottle of Hoppin’ Frog’s B.O.R.I.S, or even $9 for a 6-pack of Big Boss Bad Penny Brown Ale (the going rate at my local grocery) no matter how good it tastes when they are used to paying less than that for a 12-pack of fizzy-yellow. Wal-Mart sells more home-goods than Williams-Sonoma for a reason… most consumers will take price over quality.

    Absent one-on-one mentoring ~ what Julie from Bruisin’ Ales would call ‘beerlanthropy’ ~ that leaves most beer drinkers starting to wade in with the cheaper ‘exotics’ to which they actually have access ~ and those are going to be Blue Moon, BudLight Wheat, and Sol. The only way craft beer makes significant in-roads with those consumers is by a more competitive price point, and I don’t know that it is a battle worth fighting.

    Where does that leave us? I think that Keith and Sean’s ideas about changing the nature of the conversation are where craft beer wins the battle. Ignore trying to be a ‘gateway beer,’ unless you can find a way to be Boston Lager or Fat Tire. Instead, frame great craft beer in the context of other high-end consumables, and win over those willing to spend their money on well-made items (be they foodies, high-end coffee drinkers, or those that enjoy fine spirits).

  8. erik says:

    @Brad

    I do think that a lot of people in the U.S. have some sort of weird feeling that enjoying themselves or taking the time to consume good-quality items is somehow wrong. It’s like some elitist attitude that defines itself by anti-elitism (if that makes any sense), and that’s really what we’re fighting against here.

    But to answer your question, it’s my opinion that the “beginner crafts” sell well for one reason and one reason only: Availability. Distribution is king in the beer market. If you can get your product out to more places, you are far more likely to sell more of it to more people. Simple numbers.

    Blue Moon is a perfect example. You’re talking about a craft-quality beer with the distribution network of MillerCoors. No wonder it’s so popular. People want to drink good beer, but what they have available to them is Blue Moon (which is good! …. sans orange). So they drink it, and they like it. Later on, they’re out buying a six-pack and they’ll buy what they know they like instead of all the crazy things that they don’t know about.

    I think that’s the only reason that something like Blue Moon would act as any sort of gateway. I think that most people drinking Blue Moon would/could drink something else, if only someone would just give it to them.

  9. Brad says:

    Kevin, very well-put. Simple as it is, price has a whole lot to do with it. Think about restaurants.

    Erik, there’s no doubt that quality + availability is a formidable combo. Availability by itself is hard to beat. But for whatever reason, big beer companies decided long ago they could sell more product by dumbing it down to appeal to the masses. I have every belief that if you waved a magic wand and replaced all macros with craft beer tomorrow, even plenty of swill-drinkers would find themselves pleasantly surprised. But I bet we’d agree that, all other things (price, distribution, marketing) being equal, the “safe” beers would still out-perform your “crazier” crafts if the switch were made overnight.

  10. Keith says:

    I’m the brewmaster who created Blue Moon back in 1995. It’s still made with oats, wheat, malt, hops, orange peel and coriander. Nothing else. I created the orange slice garnish in 1997 to complement the orange peel and coriander in the beer. It was a lot of hard work over the last 14 years to keep this brand going and to educate beer drinkers about wheat beers, Belgian beers (yes, I got my doctorate in brewing at the Univ of Brussels), extreme beers and beer cuisine.
    You can think what you want about Blue Moon, but as a brewmaster, I am very proud to know that one of my creations is enjoyed by many people around the country. This would be true of all brewmasters from breweries big and small. And, thanks for keeping your posts and discussion on the positive side.

  11. Andrea says:

    I totally agree with you. Think about it: I started to love craft beer when I tasted for the first time Andechs Doppelbock. If you’re used to drink industrial lagers, that beer is not easy at all. I’m sure that we don’t need a gateway beer.

  12. Kevin says:

    Keith, you *should* be proud of Blue Moon – it’s a good beer. I think the point that many of us is trying to make is that it would not be nearly as popular if it didn’t have the distribution network of MillerCoors making it available in the majority of retail outlets where *any* beer is sold.

    I’m interested in your insight as someone that helped launch the brand – was there ever a belief that even the majority of BMC drinkers would try Blue Moon? Or was it targeted at a specific segment of the beer-drinking public? Given that it is billed as being from Blue Moon Brewing Company, I have always assumed that there is zero desire to attract the majority of macro-beer drinkers, but that it is a niche-targeted beer.

  13. ingrate says:

    At Dogfish last night, one of my co-workers didn’t know what to get. I asked him what he liked and he replied “Sierra Nevada”. The server had never heard of it ( o.O ) so I turned to her and said “Please bring him a taster of 60 and a taster of 90. He will like the 60, I don’t know if he will like the 90.”

    He liked the 60.

    He had two of them.

    Odds are when we goes shopping and picks up a four pack, it will be DFH60.

    I don’t know if there are gateway beers, but there are gateway people. Erik, you always do such a stellar job matching people’s “well I like X” with “you should try Y”. So all I have to say is: I learned it by watching you! Alright?! I learned it by watching You!

  14. Kristy says:

    Hi Erik – Kristy here from BitterSweet Partnership. Hope you’re well! Interesting post, and interesting discussion as always. It’s this sort of issue that we’re trying to address with BitterSweet – on our website we do recommend a variety of beers to help act as the “person who enjoys [beer]” you mention. I think it’s in part the lack of information out there about beer that discourages women from trying it. There’s often not much information at the point of sale about the differences between different beers – so it’s the branding, marketing and peer adoption of many beers that acts as the gateway that encourages new drinkers to try it. Our research found that women in the UK are put off from trying beer due to a number of factors (from things like myths about calorie content to fears that they’ll look masculine) – so our work at the moment is to try and dispel factors such as these as a wider approach – as much as we’d love to take every potential beer fan to the pub and recommend a great beer for their choice…

  15. erik says:

    Oh, I’d say it’s the lack of information that stops anyone from trying it – not just women.

    I do think that information from a corporate/company/brewery level is important – knowing what to expect about what’s in the bottle is key! And not just from a “beer infused with cranberries” type of way, but in the same way wine labels are written:

    “This beer has notes of coffee, chocolate, and berries, and pairs well with any chocolate dessert.”

    Ultimately, however, if Person A isn’t the type of person to just try something new on their own, no amount of marketing will get them to do so, it really has to come from a friend.

    The beer industry (in general) would do well to have a “Spread the word: buy a friend a beer” campaign.

    … if that happens, I want a cut of profit.

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