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Making economics interesting: Beer in the wine aisle

I’ve steered clear of the recent “wine-ification” of beer kerfuffle because I don’t have anything to say I haven’t already (New Beer Rule #7: Beer is not the new wine was written back in December of 2007, thus predating about half the breweries in the United States).

But today Mike Veseth, who I’ve mentioned here many times (including about his fine book, Wine Wars, and that he has another, Extreme Wine, on the way) asks the question: Is Craft Beer the Next Big Thing in Wine?

Remember the context and that the discussion revolves around economics. And it pretty much starts with an answer to the question he asks in the headline.

(Yes) — if you are thinking about things in terms of market spaces. The wine market space and that of craft beer are increasingly overlapping as craft beers infringe on wine’s turf (and low alcohol wines threaten to do the same for beer). And if the common battlefield isn’t huge at this point, it is certainly growing and warrants attention.

Much of it won’t appear new if you’ve been reading the beer compared to wine discussion for the past several years. But, you know, not everyone has. So it’s worth taking the time to move from Point A to Point B and so on with him. Words like innovation (“Innovation is a hot topic in the beverage business these days and craft beer presents more opportunities for innovation and product development than most wines if you are aiming at that market segment.”) and complexity are used. It’s interesting to read what somebody who does not live in the beer aisle has to write about beer.

So craft beer has a lot in common with wine and maybe a couple of advantages. With these products more widely available and a growing customer base that is ready and willing to experiment, I think it is plausible and wine and craft beer will increasingly share market space and must take that competition into account.

Something to think about.

And one quick side note:

At the end he suggests that some wineries might start to brew beer. Of course, that’s already happened. There are several wineries across the country who already do brew beer. Notably, in 1997 Korbel Champagne Cellars started Russian River Brewing in northern California and hired Vinnie Cilurzo as brewmaster. Six years later, Korbel decided to get out of the brewing business. Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo bought the brand and started a brewpub, then a production brewery, in Santa Rosa. Do you think Korbel wishes it could take that decision back?

The future of beer writing? Yawn. The future of beer? More interesting

Mike Veseth, author of Wine Wars, has checked in with his thoughts on Andrew Jefford’s “The Wine Writer is Dead” that has attracted much attention from wine writers and bloggers. (The full speech is here, and Jamie Goode’s excellent commentary is also worth your time.)

Jefford gave his speech at meeting of European wine bloggers. That’s the context. I read Veseth because he often presents a “sideways” view, with economics often at the center of the conversation (his blog, after all, is called The Wine Economist).

I’m not really worried about whether wine writing is dead or alive. I’m more interested in wine reading, which I specifically do not define as reading about wine exclusively in paid (generally print) publications. Wine reading seems to be changing dramatically and that’s the more interesting trend. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about this in economic terms.

Economists who study the economics of food choice believe that a key factor in the growing consumption of high fat fast food is cost — fast food is relatively cheap both in terms of money and time, which are strong economic incentives. Even when healthier food is available and consumers understand something about nutrition the economic incentives push and pull them into the drive-through lane on the margin.

I think the economics of readership (and wine readership) works the same way. I’m not saying that writing on the internet is the intellectual equivalent of “empty calories,” but the shift of readership from traditional print publications to electronic media is influenced by economic incentives (as well as other factors of course).

At this point my mind went another direction than Veseth’s essay, thinking instead about how the shift to online information consumption (which may include entertainment, and may or may not take the form of reading) might change beer, or if it makes a difference at all. By beer I mean something beyond measurable changes to what’s in my glass (those still matter) — my overall beer experience.

Quite obviously, it is now cheaper — ah, the economics — and easier to reach a larger audience (and the beer audience is becoming bigger still). One example of how that can provoke change: It’s pretty well understood that Über beers get the bulk of the attention at beer rating sites and therefore promote big beers. However, how much attention would Lew Bryson’s The Session Beer Project have received in an all-print world (OK, with a bit of usenet chatter thrown in)? So there’s one for small beers.

And yesterday there were a couple of hmmm moments. First, a report from Shanken News Daily about how “bars like to feature the newest brewery in town or the hottest brand fueled by social media” created a flurry of conversation on Twitter. Later, Charlie Papazian asked “Do you give a damn about who makes your beer?” and opened online voting on the topic. Of course, I care. That “where” matters (as ingredients, and human involvement, and a few other things) is pretty much the premise behind this blog.

But while I think that MillerCoors should make it clear to consumers that it owns and operates AC Golden Brewing within the confines of its giant Colorado brewery I’m as interested in the rest of the story about the beers being brewed there. Is somebody going to that? How? I haven’t seen it in print. Will I online?

I don’t expect you to share my lifelong fascination with what used to be called “print” or even how stories are told. Although I take particular joy in being able to use words to describe walking in an experimental hop yard with a plant breeder, I understand there’s every chance that photos, a bit of audio, even video might work better for many (OK, most) consumers. These new fangled devices provide the opportunity to create something like The Long Strange Trip Dock Ellis from ESPN.com. Go read. Feel free to insert you own expletive, as [expletive] wow.

The point is not the medium, of course, but the message. The best beer-related example I can point to is Evan Rail’s Beer Matters, which is clearly on message but lacks the Dock Ellis Treatment. It runs more than 6,000 words, longer than you’d ever read in a beer print journal.

It seems it could only exist in this new medium. Of course, the essay costs $1.99 to read. It always comes back to economics, doesn’t it?

Book review: The ‘sideways’ view

Wine WarsIf I’m going to finish a book or magazine article (or blog post, for that matter) I expect the author to tell me something new or provoke me to consider something I thought I knew about in a different way.

(Of course it should be well written and focus on a topic that interests me. I sense I’ve read as much about Lady Gaga as I ever will, although I’m sure there’s plenty more that will amuse somebody else.)

I was reminded of this well into Mike Veseth’s Wine Wars when he wrote:

“Well, in wine tasting you learn that sometimes it can be helpful to tilt your glass at an angle and look at the edge of the wine. Sometimes this ‘sideways’ view provides information about the past and clues to the future. It’s time to take a sideways look at the future of wine.”

I was that far into the book (page 195) because Veseth takes a sideways look when discussing “The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists” (the sub-title of the book and the three sections in which is it divided). The first two parts help understand what’s different about shopping for wine at Trader Joe’s and Costco, and that was enough to keep my attention. Veseth is an economist and that’s one of the reasons I subscribe to his blog feed.

(And maybe the history of Blue Nun is special because way back when a friend who knew much more about wine than I did at the time actually sent back a bottle of Blue Nun. Who the hell knows when a bottle of Blue Nun is “off”?)

I wish there were more books like this focused on beer. If you look at Amazon’s list of best selling beer books the “how to” theme is pretty apparent. (The same is true of wine, but those aren’t the books I read.)

That’s why I plan to break away from drinking beer long enough at the Great American Beer Festival to listen to the discussion of “The Evolution of Beer Scholarship” in the Brewers Studio Pavilion (scroll down).

The writing and editorial team of the newly published The Oxford Companion to Beer, will discuss the developing resources in beer education. Compared to a well-defined wine academia, beer education has always been pretty thin, but that’s changing fast. Discussing resources from oral tradition to iPhone apps, Editor-in-Chief, Garrett Oliver, will lead this conversation on the current demand for genuine information and scholarship on beer, and what’s been happening to meet that demand and make brewing studies deeper and more interesting than ever before.

If I don’t make it and you do please tell them you’re pretty sure there is a demand for more information about hops.

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