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Who owns the beer revolution?

OK, change of plan. Yesterday’s discussion about whether consumers will continue to accept the idea Foster’s is “Australian for beer” when four out of five pints are brewed in the United Kingdom was to be followed with more about the importance of authenticity to both brewers and beer drinkers.

We’ll do that, but instead of starting from conversations during the Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle (the insiders’ view), there’s an outsider’s view worth reading. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov writes in his blog, The Pour:

I always enjoy writing about beer. Occasionally, though, I am mystified by the hard-core beer lovers, who crave respect and recognition for the wonderful artisanal brews that are now available, but sometimes seem intolerant of anyone outside their realm who addresses the subject.

Let’s own up to the fact he’s talking about us. If you’re reading this then you must be hard-core, because this blog is a niche within a niche (the craft beer market). That doesn’t mean you have to be intolerant. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t think intolerant is such a bad idea (sorry, I do).

Hear him out.

I can understand their feelings, I think. Many of them have carried the torch for beer for many years without much recognition, and they naturally feel a certain amount of ownership of the subject. After a while, insularity becomes comforting, especially when the culture as a whole seems so much more interested in industrial swill than great beer.

But the attitude goes deeper than that. Many connoisseurs I’ve spoken with want to see beer given the same sort of cultural obeisance as wine. They want it to be regarded as a complex, delicious, worthy art form, yet they quail at the pretentiousness that trails after wine. In fact, beer lovers are so afraid of anything that even hints of pretension that they ward it off like God-fearing peasants making the signs of the cross at vampires.

Put a bunch of beer-lovers in a room and chances are you will see an utter disregard of fashion: goofy T-shirts, bizarre ties, wild, unruly facial hair and haircuts that could not possibly have been rendered by a professional. In short, you have the same determinedly nonconformist demographic as you would at a science-fiction convention.

Calm down. He admits that at the end he’s having a bit of fun. Back up to the part where he talks about ownership (that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look in the mirror while you read the rest).

Listen to Saint Arnold Brewing founder Brock Wagner, whose customers donated money so the brewery could upgrade its system. “I can’t really say why they did it other than I’ve come to realize I may own the stock, but it’s not my brewery,” he said. “It belongs to everybody who drinks Saint Arnold beer.”

Maybe you don’t find it easy to be so generous. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the American beer revolution has been about reclaiming the soul of beer from industrial producers, and that required a certain brashness.

Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione put it this way in his Craft Brewers Conference keynote address:

“Americans will always vehemently protect their right to create an alternative. Not just an alternative to giant breweries – which is what we represent – but to the increasing corporatization of American culture.

“It’s not outlandish to recognize our boiling kettles as modern day melting pots – the sources of beers as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them. Made by people as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them.”

That’s about as authentic as it gets. It belongs to all of us, and to none of us.

Beer: Image or reality?

The BBC asks a pretty fair question: Is today’s beer all image over reality?

They don’t even touch upon what’s happening in the United States, where the Here’s to Beer campaign continues to broaden – with print advertisements in beer publications, a recent full page ad in USA Today and commercials directed by Spike Lee. All are intended to lift the image of beer, and it will be interesting to see if image versus reality must be an either/or choice.

At the heart of the BBC story is the fact that Scottish and Newcastle is buying the Foster’s brand across Europe. And the fact that S&N now brews four out of every five pints of Foster’s sold.

To the premise.

Backed by a thoroughly successful advertising campaign, Foster’s seems more Australian than having a barbecue on Bondi Beach while a mob of happy kangaroos leap past.

Well, that’s the image – the reality is a fair bit less Antipodean.

And now to the point.

In terms of its nationality, it now appears more rain, pies and crisps, than sun, Vegemite and barbecued prawns alfresco.

Does that matter? For the BBC this is a business story. It notes that other brands – such as Carling – are brewed in Britain for British drinkers, that SABMiller farms out some of the production of Pilsner Urquell to Poland, and that Guinness is brewed in 50 different countries around the world.

(As an aside, they could have added that Anheuser-Busch prides itself in producing Budweiser that tastes the same from any of its dozen breweries in the United States. A-B doesn’t want drinkers comparing the differences between Newark Bud and Houston Bud, though I find the idea intriguing. Imagine two guys at a bar, where one says, “I get a little more sweet corn in the Houston Bud,” and other replies, “You like green apple? Try the Newark Bud.”)

But back to the BBC story.

Jim Boulton, managing director of London-based brand experts Large Design, warns global beer firms that for a brand to be successful in the long term, it has to be authentic.

“If Foster’s brand essence is its Australian heritage, then Scottish and Newcastle might have a problem,” he says.

“If it’s the taste, then buying the brand makes total sense.”

Does that bode well for the S&N version of Foster’s?

Don’t spend too much time thinking about it, but do consider the importance of authenticity. The subject came up many times during the Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle, and not just from American brewers. Tomorrow, more from those conversations.

Why are these people dumping their beer?

magic

If you brew beer and you entered that beer in the World Beer Cup competition completed last week in Seattle you hope it did not suffer the same fate as the beer in this picture. That beer is being dumped, eliminated, bumped from the competition. In this case not fatal, because it happened in a mock judging session held for the benefit of the press. (Regular judging is closed to the public and press.)

What did we learn? That there is no perfect way to judge beer, but that the World Beer Cup/Great American Beer Festival system (they are the same) seems to be the best going.

A few years ago Michael Jackson – the world’s leading beer authority – wrote: “There is no better way to appraise a beer than to sample it ‘blindfold’ (ie from numbered glasses, with no other identification). This is the way beers are judged in competitions. In my view, the best such competitions are the World Beer Cup and the Professional Panel Tasting at the Great American Beer Festival.”

Yet the results still led to a flurry of posts on various Internet discussion boards. Many of the more interesting ones took place on the Burgundian Babble Belt, including this inside view.

In it, judge Joris Pattyn nicely summarizes some of the strengths and weaknesses. And there are weaknesses in judging blind. Kermit Lynch argues the point with particular passion in “Adventures on the Wine Route”:

“Blind, yes, that does sum up the vision involved in this popular method of judging quality. The method is misguided, the results spurious and misleading. I realized that I could not trust my own judgment under such tasting conditions. A number of wines are set up side by side, tasted, compared, and ranked. A tally is taken. One wine wins. The others are losers. Democracy in action.

“Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the condition under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at table, with food. When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own. There is a vast difference, an insurmountable difference, between the taste of a wine next to another wine, and the same wine’s taste with food.”

Lynch goes on for paragraphs, making one solid argument after another, touching upon the point we all know that big flavored wines (and you could substitute beers right here) often shine in blinding tastings. “Those big rock ’em-sock’em blockbusters perform one function admirably – they win tastings,” he wrote.

But one of the stars of this competition was Firestone Walker Brewing, which captured five medals and was honored as Mid-Size Brewing Company for the second straight time. Firestone Walker doesn’t make big-ass beers designed to out-hop or out-malt the competition in a blind tasting, which is probably why those beers also aren’t stars at the Internet tasting sites. Instead, thoughtful tasters end up with words like “subtle” and “nuanced” in their notes.

There are many other similar examples listed among this year’s results. Yes, big-ass beers sometimes won, and they deserved to. Seems like we should pay attention to the results of a competition that manages to reward both sorts of beers.

You don’t always have to think about the beer

In searching looking for something else before heading to the Craft Brewers Conference today, I ended up reading most of an interview conducted with Saint Arnold Brewing co-founder Brock Wagner more than two years ago. The resulting story was for craft beer industry members, and mostly about business, but this short exchange is relative to the ongoing conversation here.

BW: We’re trying to add 10 customers at a time. The big brewers are trying to add a million.

We’re in different businesses. We both make something called beer, but they don’t really taste much alike. The big brewers are of a completely different mindset. A-B has more in common with Coca-Cola than they do with us. That’s not to say their beer is bad. It’s just different from what we make. If you look at their advertising you see they are trying to sell lifestyle.

And what are you selling?

BW: I think we’re selling a really good beer. We want you to think about what you are drinking. I’ll think about the beer when I first taste it. After that I’m sitting there with my wife and with friends shooting the breeze and it becomes background. But periodically I will think about the beer again.

In case you don’t know, Wagner gave up a career in investment banking to help start Saint Arnold, then bought out his original partner when they figured out the brewery was not going to be big enough to support both of them.

“I ran the numbers and figured I could keep a roof over my head, have a house, some kids, retire at 65 and take a vacation every year,” he said. “In investment banking, it’s all about money. I realized that money wasn’t what motivated me in life.”

I’m looking forward to the rest of a week in which I get to have conversations with Wagner and a lot of other brewers like him, artisans driven by the desire to create something special. And I’m looking forward to drinking their beer, shooting the breeze as beer drifts into the background, then thinking about it again.

Good idea, Brock.

Spike Lee directed beer ads debut

Anheuser-Busch will unveil new advertisements this weekend as part of its “Here’s to Beer” campaign.

This weekend’s ads ask a simple question: With whom would you most like to drink a beer?

In a spot directed by Spike Lee, Lee stars and answers the question himself: Jackie Robinson.

In another ad (also directed by Lee) Michael Imperioli, who plays the character Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos, chooses Humphrey Bogart.

Although these ads are financed by A-B they don’t highlight Anheuser-Busch beers. The “Here’s to Beer” campaign officially is a Beer Institute project.

“It does line up beautifully with the whole notion of elevating and enhancing the image of beer,” said Bob Lachky, executive vice president of global industry development at A-B’s domestic brewing unit. “Where else would you do that than with celebrities . . . who you wouldn’t think are beer drinkers?”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports A-B also will take the idea to the Internet and radio talk shows.

“This whole premise of ‘Who would you like [to have] a beer with?’ has incredible legs,” Lachky said. “We envision this as [an industry] platform that can run a long time.”

Starting Monday, consumers can nominate their own ideal drinking partners at herestobeer.com. The five best entries will post a video explaining why they’d want to share a beer with that person. The winner, selected through an Internet vote, will get a trip to Munich, Germany, to attend Oktoberfest.

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