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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.

Smoked, smoked and more smoked

Bamberb OnionFine Living Television features the beers and food of Germany this weekend. Germany: Prost! To German Beer! airs first at 10:30 p.m. EST on Friday, and repeats twice.

Schlenkerla Tavern, Heller Brewery and Rauchbier from Bamberg and Beck’s will be highlighted, and the Fine Living website has a recipe for the Bamberg Onion.

Just a thought. There’s time to track down some Schlenkerla Urbock (a beer that tastes bigger than its 6.5% abv), and make yourself a Bamberg Onion (be warned, the recipe is for four so you might invite a few friends over) – an onion stuffed with smoked pork and topped with a slab of smoked bacon – before the show starts.

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.

Finding nuance at a bargain price

What does the phrase “beer is the new wine” mean?

Using it as a chapter heading in The Big Book of Beer, Adrian-Tierney Jones favors the idea that beer will claim a place at the British dining table where glasses of wine currently reside. Other writers refer to a sense that beer has taken on an aura of sophistication, or that if you want to spend $10-$15 for an interesting (750ml) bottle of an alcoholic beverage that hunting for beer has become as interesting as hunting for wine.

Todd Wernstrom doesn’t use the phrase in a column in the February/March issues of Wine News, but the idea fits in perfectly with his discussion of wines at this price lower in food stores (a price range considered high end for beer). He writes: “What matters now isn’t what’s in the bottle but what’s on the bottle: labels with little animals; labels with bright colors; labels with names that range from the silly to the vulgar.”

He’s just getting started.

… if I have to see one more collection of pretty people with impossibly straight and white teeth exulting the moment while hoisting a glass of some $8 wine that glints in a prosaic sunset, I’ll end up sideways with stomach cramps. These so-called “lifestyle” shots are an even more cynical selling strategy than using bodacious babes to sell cheap beer. Even the most obtuse Bud drinker knows deep down that putting away a six pack will get him nothing but drunk.

In a publication where the word beer is almost never used, he discusses “looking again for nuance.” Then he writes, “Beers that actually capture the essence of what has been lost in everyday wine are largely made by the micro-size brewers. Names like Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Brooklyn Brewery, Victory, New Belgium Brewing Company and Allagash are now well known in my house and among my friends.”

He makes several points:

– They are all unique.
– The embrace their terroir – and although the idea of beer terroir is even murkier than wine terroir (but worth exploring later) he defines it as a function not of where beer is made but of the choices made by the brewmaster.
– They convey their sincerity and genuineness in their marketing efforts.

The bottom line: “The best part of all these beers is that they are bargains when compared to the vapid entry-level wine we are being peddled.”

Here we might part company. Bargain is a tricky word. He would argue fairly that an expensive bottle of wine is a better choice than beer because he prefers wine to beer. Here the view is that beer often surpasses the best wine in many situations.

However, I share his frustration with marketers, no matter the alcoholic beverage.

Sadly, the advertsing whizzes just don’t think we’re smart enough to make choices based on something other than pretty pictures, and the winemakers don’t think we can taste the difference anyway.

By the way, the column was headlined, “Make it real.”

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