Because there are a lot of ways to make bad beer

Curiously related to the question asked here Monday — Who gets to decide what is bad beer?New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov explains the problem with what he calls “wine populism.” The same points could be made about “beer populism.”

Asimov argues that that a critic’s job is not to validate the choices of consumers. “If anything, it’s to make them question their assumptions,” he writes. “You may drink a wine without ever wondering what it is you like about it. Such uncritical drinking is fine; nobody is obliged to give wine a second thought. But if a negative assessment of that style of wine actually causes you to consider all the things you like about it, your experience of that wine may be broader and deeper.”

What struck me in the Businessweek story about how well Corona sells despite the fact it is a “bad beer” was how reporter Kyle Stock leaned on populism, citing online ratings. So the story was “a lot of people don’t like Corona, but a lot of people buy it” and why. Wouldn’t it have been more compelling to have a critic explain why Corona is fundamentally flawed (or do it himself) and why people still buy it?

This relates directly to the “Does American craft brewing have a quality problem?” discussion. Because, let’s be honest, quality challenged beers from breweries smaller than the behemoth occupying 142 acres in St. Louis ain’t exactly new. That some beers are flawed just happens to be discussed a bit more. People still buy them. People like them.

There are a lot of ways to make bad beer. You can make a lousy beer that includes no dimethyl sulfide (DMS), no diacetyl, is not oxidized, astringent or light-struck (smells skunky unless you shove a lime in the neck of the bottle). In other words, without flaws a laboratory would flag. So it was refreshing to see this posted Monday in the Phoenix New Times: “Bad Water Brewing and Craft Beer’s Real Quality Problem.”

I won’t want to spoil it for you, but here’s a snippet: “Some display metallic flavors, or floating particles of coagulated protein and dead yeast. But more than that, Bad Water’s beers are insipid. The flavors are weak; the bodies are thin. They bring nothing to the table, add nothing to the conversation. They are uninteresting, mundane, and sterile.”

This is particularly disappointing because in trying to learn more about the brewery (which apparently is not a brewery at all, but an enterprise selling beer) I discovered: “Bad Water Brewing produces high quality beer dedicated to sharing a distinct beverage brand for influential individuals whose loyalty never forego quality, character, originality and taste. Bad Water has added a new age splash to an ancient Belgian tradition, developed with an equal blend of art and science. An individualized clientele approach to branding is based on the exchange of product with a next level experience for our brand ambassadors.”

I had such high hopes.

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Who gets to decide what is bad beer?

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 04.21.14

The Corona Coup: How Constellation Sells So Much Bad Beer. Just a thought. It would be interesting to see the results of a blind tasting where the same people who give other Mexican beers a higher rating and rip Corona to shreds compare the two. Could they tell the difference? [Via Businessweek]

Passion for beer pales in Belgium and Glass half empty for Germany’s proud beer industry. Guess there’s no beery reasons to visit those places any more. [Via Associated Press and Reuters]

For Masochists, Here’s Some Hops-Flavored Soda. “It’s a frustrating beverage designed for frustrated people.” Quite an endorsement, don’t you think? [Via The Atlantic Cities]

New Beer, Old Cans: Why Investors Should Pay Attention to Miller Lite. So why did it take so long for somebody at Miller to think, “This retro thing that worked for Pabst – why don’t we try that?” [Via the Motley Fool]

Beer spills into history books. The story states the Oregon Hops & Brewing Archives is the first of its kind in the country. From my perspective, it is a good thing that and agricultural historian at New Mexico State University is an unofficial adviser to the Oregon State University project. [Via Register-Guard]

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Session #87 announced: Local Brewery History

Lemp Brewing sign, building (background)

The SessionHost Reuben Gray has announced the ground rules for The Session #87: Local Brewery History: “I want you to give your readers a history lesson about a local brewery. That’s a physical brewery and not brewing company by the way. The brewery doesn’t need to still exist today, perhaps you had a local* brewery that closed down before you were even born. Or you could pick one that has been producing beer on the same site for centuries.”

His one stipulation is that a brewery must have been around at least 20 years.

* “Local” allows for breweries within 8 hours drive. In my case that puts Bell’s Brewery, New Glarus Brewing, and Vino’s Brewpub in play. Or closer to home Chouteau Avenue Brewery, Forest Park Brewing, and Lemp Brewing.

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The life cycle of beer innovation

A quick exchange of comments here Monday provoked this thought from Boak & Bailey about what happens to even the most dominant of breweries over time:

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap …”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

Of course change is inevitable, but is complacency? The number of “breweries in planning” illustrates there are already plenty of pesky competitors nipping at the heals of the largest of the small breweries (otherwise known as “big craft” or just “craft”), and projects like Sierra Nevada’s “Beer Camp Across America” sure indicate somebody’s not punching out at 4:59.

No arguing that the crazy growth of beers with IPA somewhere in their name suggest that a few brewers might do a little more thinking on their own, but together IPAs, PAs and “seasonals” still don’t account for half of sales. That’s a lot more diversity than the days when the choices were pale lager and light pale lager.

Twenty years ago, when Sierra Nevada sold about one-fifth of what it does now, it seemed like almost every new brewer talked in glowing terms about how great Sierra Nevada Pale Ale tastes, then added “but I want to make something different.” Think about when Stone Brewing opened in 1996. “When I brewed at Pyramid (in Washington) we made a Cascade pale ale, and I was a little sensitive about doing what we’d done at Pyramid,” co-founder Steve Wager explained. He and Greg Koch decided not to use Cascade hops (also a signature for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) in any of their beers, and made a big deal out of it. “We had some fun,” he said.

Five days ago, August Schell Brewing Company, established in 1860 and the second oldest brewery in the country, won two medals at the World Beer Cup. It earned gold for Schell’s Firebrick, a Vienna-style lager. File that under traditional. It took a bronze for Schell’s Framboise du Nord, made by adding a boatload of raspberries to Star of the North, a Berliner Weisse, and refermenting that for an additional four months. This all happens in Schell’s original 1936 cypress wood lagering tanks.

Some tradition in there, for sure, but also something else. Definitely, 154 years in, not complacency.

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What’s Big Beer? What’s Big Craft?

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 04.14.14

A nice piece of reporting by Eric Gorski last week provoked still more excellent questions from Alan McLeod, but before getting to those links I’m wishing I could find entries defining Big Beer and Big Craft in my beer dictionary. Steve Hindy used the first in his oft-cited New York Times op-ed piece, Free Craft Beer!, and regular readers of A Good Beer Blog will be familiar with the latter. History suggests asking for narrow definitions causes mostly pain (see craft beer), but I’m feeling a bit confused.

Does American craft brewing have a quality problem? and One Key Way Big Craft And Small Brewers Differ. You couldn’t turn around at the Craft Brewers Conference last week without bumping into somebody with a beard or somebody talking about the importance of quality (sometimes one in the same). As well as examining those concerns, Gorski’s story points out that the cost of quality control and quality assurance are not a barrier to entry. And quite often during presentations (there were 10 at a time) on the technical brewing track included useful checklists (vital equipment, what can be checked in house, which is better tested by an outside lab, etc.) and information about the importance of in-house sensory panels.

Of course, quality beer and “good beer” (not more capital letters and pleas for definitions) are not one in the same. Which is why you should also read the second link.

[Via The Denver Post and A Good Beer Blog]

Vive La Difference? Good question — and surely related to the concept of Big Craft — as still another brewery from the West goes shopping for an East Coast home: “There is a question though that nags away in the back of my head, would it not be utterly disingenuous to consider Stone a ‘local’ brewery, or their beer as ‘local’?” [Via Fuggled]

Complacency and “craft” in Munich. If that headline alone isn’t enough to get you to click the link you must not be a regular here. [Via I might have a glass of beer]

Sierra Nevada founder sits down to talk beer. Passed along because as much as been written recently about Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada’s new North Carolina brewery there are still things to learn. Like that he often slept in a trailer on site while the brewery was being built. [Via Blue Ridge Now]

Terroir? What Exactly Do You Mean? Harvey Steinman might think he’s writing only about wine, but there are clues here to help to sort out the notion of beer from a place. “Is terroir about the basic material, or how it expresses itself in the wine?” And, “Some want to include ‘the work of man’ in their definition of terroir. But that’s regional style, not an expression of terroir.” [Via Wine Spectator]

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