30 Jun 2010 @ 6:45 PM 

I’m always a little amazed by the bizarre cultural dichotomy that beer finds itself in.

It seems almost insane to me that the image on the left (one of the least salubrious Beer Magazine covers) could somehow influence the image on the right.

On one hand, beer is the domain of the 1970’s frat boy culture. Girls in bikinis, kegs, hot dogs, and alcohol abuse. What could be more American? Beer is also undeniably blue collar. At the end of a long shift at the factory, you can imagine a group of guys heading to their local to throw back a pint or two, but you can’t really imagine them sipping a Fuzzy Navel or a glass of Merlot.

On the other hand, beer is swiftly joining wine in the high-end marketplace. It is being recognized for its strengths in food pairing and you are increasingly likely to see someone drinking a goblet of great beer at a fancy restaurant. It’s not just wine and cocktails anymore.

I think about this a lot whenever somebody brings up craft beer in cans.

I recognize that cans are a good delivery vehicle for beers. They are little kegs. They don’t let light in and have the opportunity, when filling, for a totally oxygen-free experience. They are lighter, less expensive, and have a smaller impact on the environment. They are a brilliant packaging option.

But! Cans have the cultural cache of beach, ballpark, and BBQ. Macros dominate the can market and when you think about beer in a can, you pretty much can’t avoid thinking about Bud Light… or.. maybe warm Schlitz. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the beer in the can, it’s a fact that over the past 100 years what’s been in a can has been industrial light lager. It’s like how when you hear the word “forty” in relation to a drink your brain automatically goes here.

I guess I wonder when we’re likely to see this:

Craft beer geeks? We understand that great beer comes in a can, but we’re a small, small part of the market, and even then I don’t usually think of canned beer as beer dinner material. I think of it as “drunk” material.

I see the craft market going to two directions right now. I see it shooting for accessibility. I see it broadening its audience in the long search for market share and perhaps making some sacrifices in image as it goes. I also see it going down the fancy-pants-and-dinner-jacket road in an effort to be taken seriously in the culinary world. I see big, elegant bottles with fancy labels being served at cheese pairings, but that way lies inaccessibility and a battle across the long inlaid roads of wine.

So it all makes me wonder: Can craft go in both of these directions at once? Or will we inevitably see a market segment split where part of the market seeps back toward appealing to the lowest common denominator while still making big-flavored beer and part of the market takes its cicerone to go stand next to the sommelier?

They may not make significantly different products right now. After all, the market is young and while our brewing imagination runs wild, it does so within parameters that are only just starting to expand. Twenty or thirty years down the road when these cultural differences are more stark, will we have two craft markets instead of one? Or will cans find a place at the dinner table?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 30 Jun 2010 @ 06 45 PM

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 06 Nov 2009 @ 9:55 AM 

A quick side note: This post is a contribution to The Session a monthly series of communal blogging. This month’s session, Session #33 is being hosted by Andrew Couch at I’ll Have a Beer. This is my first contribution to The Session, and I feel like I jumped in on a rather difficult topic. Please be sure to head over to I’ll Have a Beer and read what others have posted, it’s sure to be nothing but interesting.

The Session: Beer Blogging Fridays

I picked up a beer specifically for this Session. The announcement post said: “… drink a beer. Ideally drink something that you don’t think you will like.” So I went out and picked up something that I thought I wouldn’t like based on the packaging – how it was framed – and I came up with Werewolf.

Something about the label and the one-word name “Werewolf” has always turned me off about this beer. The level of detail in the art on the label combined with the catchphrase below the logo – You must be sure you wanna taste it – has always struck me as a little kitschy and maybe little too much like a warning. “Are you sure you want to taste it?” The art looks like someone was trying to make a cover for a teen fantasy novel rather than a beer. Maybe something is lost in translation from the Lithuanian, but I’ve always felt like the brewery takes themselves a little too seriously.

I’m sometimes amazed by the choices I see breweries make in terms of packaging and presentation. I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I often do. When buying wine, I almost always chose based on the aesthetics of the packaging. Simply put, it takes far more education about wine than I have in my head to make an informed decision on what I’m buying, so I buy what looks cool. In beer, I want more. Of course, I’m much more of a beer geek, so I tend to know what terms mean when they’re posted on bottles. I’ve said here before that I feel that beer labels should be as informative as possible, and I stick by it. Without information to educate the consumer – to frame their expectations – people will fall back on drinking what looks cool on the shelf. Breweries: Don’t let your graphic design be the (only) selling point of your beer.

As it turns out, if I knew something about how Werewolf tasted up front I might have picked it for this purpose anyway. It’s sweet and I am partial to dry beers. As part of this exercise I didn’t read any of the tasting notes on BeerAdvocate before trying the beer, so as to not have it framed for me.
You must be sure you wanna taste it.
It’s beautiful in the glass – a second frame that far surpasses the bottle. It pours a deep copper color and brilliantly clear; high effervescence rises through it gracefully to form a light ring of foam around the sides of the glass. The head dissipated rather quickly after the pour, but this ring of foam has been contributing to a gorgeous lacy veil down the sides of the glass as I drink it. Flavor-wise it is, as I said before, sweet and also a little spicy, with hints of biscuit and toast and a light fruitiness to it. It takes on a slight vinous character as it warms. There’s a warmness from the alcohol as it passes over your tongue, and it leaves you with a lingering sweetness long after you’ve taken a sip. Not really a beer I would drink more than one of. In fact, drinking the one has taken me quite a while.

But here’s the thing about framing – would I describe this beer differently to somebody else if I thought they would like it? I don’t think I would. That description is my honest experience with the beer. There are parts of it (the visual, the biscuit and toast) that I would find quite pleasant in a review, but I know that given this description I would not try the beer. Others might see, “sweet, fruity, vinous” and jump for it. Am I really framing the beer for somebody or am I merely supplying colors for the mental image that someone is drawing on their own?

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Taste – in your mouth, not the fact that you didn’t wear plaid pants to work today – is highly subjective. So much of taste is based on smell, and so much of what you smell is tied to strong memories, that I am deeply convinced that two people can taste the same beer and have two completely different flavor experiences with it.

I have a good friend who does not like hoppy beers. He tends toward dark and sweet (and I bet he read the description up there and thought, “ooOOOoo. That sounds good.”). Since I’ve known him, I’ve tried to expand his palate – I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with knowing what you like and sticking to it, but I think that it’s also a good idea to occasionally reach outside of your comfort zone.

I think back to the first time I had him try a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA:

Me: What do you think? A little citrusy? Piney? Maybe a little grapefruity? Isn’t it wonderful?

Him (making a face): It tastes like my backyard!

Me: …What?

Him: When I was a little kid, my brothers used to shove my face down into the lawn in the backyard, and that grassy, vegetal flavor? It tastes like that!

Nothing I could have said or done would have changed his perception of that beer. No amount of framing or setup will overcome the associations that you have built into your memory.

What I’ve attempted to do when discussing beer with friends – especially those who are new at craft beer – is attempt to supply them with a vocabulary. A friend told me once, “There’s all this stuff going on in this beer, but I have no idea how to describe it.” It’s really stuck with me, and I’ve heard the sentiment repeated over and over again, even in experiences where people don’t like things.

“I don’t like this.”

“Why not?”

“It tastes like beer.”

“Well… it is beer. What about the beer flavor don’t you like? Because it doesn’t all taste like that.”

“The beeriness?”

Each person’s experience is their own. I can attempt to frame things for them, but in the end I will most frame them with three or four words:

“I like it.”

or

“I don’t like it.”

Any other description is subjective to my experience, my palate, and, to some extent, my imagination as I attempt to form my vocabulary around what I have in my glass. The best I can do for others is to lend them a dictionary of terms so that they can shape theirs.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Nov 2009 @ 09 55 AM

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When you go to the store and buy a great beer, how much does packaging play a role in what you buy?

Like every intelligent person, I tell myself: Not a lot. I can look past any preconceived notions I might have about packaging and buy it for the beer inside.

Okay. So then, without knowing brands, which of these would you rather spend a decent amount on – say $15:

Labels Intentionall Obscured

I obscured the labels there to try to get you to not make a decision based on brand, but it’s hard to hide packaging details. I don’t know about you, but for the most part, I choose the bottle.

I know that cans are better for beer, I know that cans are better for the environment. I am attracted to bottles. They’re opulent. When I look at my little “beer cellar” where I’m keeping and aging beers, the bottles look cool. I’ve got a sixer of Dale’s Pale Ale around in the same spot and while I know the beer is great, it just doesn’t look as classy. They look like cans.

So let’s talk about this.

Bottles are the traditional packaging option, and we all know about them by this point in history, so let’s not really get into a long list of the pros and cons. Consider, though, that different types of bottles make different impressions. Big corked bombers with wire cages look rich, and who hasn’t ever looked at a pack of Coronitas and thought to themselves: “Man, the beer isn’t that great but those bottles are REALLY cute!” Flying Dog recently released a line of their big beers in 8 oz. bottles which, in my mind, might be the perfect size for a packaged barleywine. Bottles; let’s call them the standard to beat.
Beer Can
Yes, cans are better for beer – they’re like little kegs. People like to talk about how beer out of a can tastes tinny, but you never hear them say that about kegs, and yet kegs are just large cans. They keep light out, they can dramatically reduce oxygenation, they’re easier to recycle, they shatter a whole lot less, and they’re allowed in more public venues than bottles. However, they have this huge social stigma associated with them, thanks to BMC.

When cans were first introduced to the market they were popular and revolutionary! They’re easier to make, easier to store, they don’t break! So what happened? Well, the beer started getting crappy, didn’t it? It’s not the can’s fault, but what do most consumers think of when they think of canned beer? A 30-pack of Bud Light, not a Bourbon-barrel-aged Double IPA. Getting people past that hump is going to be a big one. Articles like this one in the Washington Post will probably help. It also helps that New Belgium – a company that is known for setting environmental standards – now has Fat Tire in cans, but it’s going to take more before it becomes a standard for craft beer, especially really specialty ones.

Incidentally, the “tinny” argument is imaginary. You know when the lining that stops beer from reacting with metal cans was invented? 1933. Seriously. There is no tinny taste. It’s all in your mind.

The pouches that I included in the picture up there appear to be new on the market. They starting popping up on blogs around the internet in the beginning of June, but I haven’t really seen much chatter about them. (You’ll see that even that link is titled: “Beer in a pouch doesn’t add metallic tastes, easy to fill.” – See? The metallic taste thing is ever-present.) There appear to be two companies pushing them: The Beverage Pouch Group and a place called InCan. The latter is based in Alaska and is focused pretty intently on backpackers, which is about the only place that I can personally see this product going. As far as I’m concerned, the major drawback to these is that if you’re not camping, these look like a big ol’ pain in the ass to keep in your fridge. Not stackable and they need their 6-pack case. Not efficient. Cool looking? Without a doubt. But will it beat out my bottle scenario up top? I don’t think so. They look like novelty items.

The last option, and one that isn’t discussed much, is plastic. I ran into a bunch at the Craft Brewers Conference this year. The plastic that is used to make soda bottles – PET- (Polyethylene terephthalate) is available in normal brown 12 oz. beer bottle form. From far away – I’m not sure you’d know the difference – at close range, there’s definitely something different about it. Once you pick it up, you know. These have about the same pros and cons as cans – except that they, of course, allow light in. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a PET bottle is significantly smaller than a glass bottle and very similar to manufacturing a can. But does it feel cheap and look cheap? Yes. Can I get by that as a consumer? Sure. But the beer has to be great.

For me, it’s a personal dilemma. As a consumer, I am attracted to glass packaging. As a future brewmaster, I’m attracted to cans. As a future business owner, I’ll probably tend toward cans, because I know it’s better for the bottom line of my business, but I spend a lot of time wishing that I could make big fancy corked ones.

What about you? Are you a brewer? Are you a beer geek? What’s your preference?

Postscript: Cans are a really interesting piece of the beer industry’s history, as well as the history of America. I found An Illustrated History of the American Beer Can while researching this post. It’s really pretty fantastic. Check it out.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Jul 2009 @ 11 43 AM

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