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A field report from the beer aisle at Walmart

Beer aisle at Walmart

Standing in the beer aisle at Walmart last week I tried to imagine a time when I might see a bottle of Orval or even Goose Island Matilda sitting in the cooler. Not there yet.

I went to Walmart out of curiosity. First, there were a series of stories last month about Walmart getting serious about selling more alcoholic beverages, obviously including beer.

… we do learn that Walmart hosted 500 representatives from the alcohol industry at its Sam’s Club auditorium in Arkansas for a little adult beverage get-together last September. At the Summit, the company’s executives proved to alcohol buyers how serious they were about increasing Walmart’s share in the beer market — and that means doubling its adult beverage sales by 2016.

Then the story resurfaced last week with with a Bloomberg report that Walmart “is so committed to becoming America’s biggest beer retailer that it has been selling Budweiser, Coors and other brews almost at cost in at least some stores.” Alan McLeod had a bit to say, and then even more. He also pointed to a related Beer Advocate discussion.

I found myself wondering if where a beer is sold matters a hill of beans. Despite generally overthinking “beer from a place” this is something I had not really considered. Where’s it is consumed, in situ, sure. But not where it is bought. That’s how I ended up at Walmart. I didn’t come to any conclusions, but now I feel up to date. I already stuck a note on the corkboard I’m looking at as I type, reminding myself to revisit by the first week of December to see if anything has changed.

It was more interesting because I also stopped at my local grocery store, Schnucks, on the way home and took more notes. Schnucks has an excellent beer selection, most of it kept in coolers. While the Walmart selection isn’t as broad as at a gas station in Fulton, Missouri, I ducked into recently, Schnucks has plenty of Firestone Walker beers, Left Hand, Ommegang, Green Flash, and so on. Plus a fine selection from more than a half dozen local breweries.

Boulevard Smokestack beers at Walmart

Boulevard Tank 7The price at Walmart includes the cost per ounce, making comparisons easy. At Walmart, at least now, this is mostly a matter of comparing packs of 6, 12, 18, 24 and 30. But — for those who don’t have the Beer Cost Calculator app on their phone that a 750ml bottle of Tank 7 from Boulevard costs 33.9 cents per ounce while a 4-pack of Tank 7 costs just 18.7 cents per ounce could be a revelation. The 750 of Tank 7 costs $8.47 at Walmart and $8.99 at Schnucks (the 4-packs $8.97 and $10.99, with a note at Schnucks that was .70 off the regular price — I usually pay $10.99 at my local beer store).

Will Walmart soon sell more 4-packs, 750ml bottles, maybe 500ml (Urban Chestnut Brewing packages its beer in 500s, in 4-packs and 8-packs)? That’s the implication of these various stories.

Some other observations: a 12-pack of Kräftig Light cans was on sale for $8.97 at Walmart and $9.99 at Schnucks, compared to $10.97 for Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. Kräftig was founded by Billy Busch — yes, one of those heirs — who is promising he will eventually build a very larger brewery in St. Louis. Meanwhile the beer is brewed under contract in Wisconsin. It’s an all-malt beer that does very well is various tastings.

Both Coors Light and Miller Lite 30-packs sell for $17.35 at Walmart at $17.97 at Schnucks. Bud Light Select and Budweiser are both $18.37/$18.35 (Walmart is always listed first).

Samuel Adams Boston Lager (12-pack) is $12.88 at Walmart, $13.99 at Schnucks, while the New Belgium Folly Pack is $12.47/$14.99. Stella Artois is $12.47/$15.99, and Heineken $12.47/$11.99. Schlafly Pale Ale 12-packs are $11.47/$11.99, and the Sample Packs $13.47/$11.99.

So this is why they called their first born ‘Wheat Ale’

Co-founder Tom Schlafly, and I guess everybody else at the St. Louis Brewery (which makes Schafly beer), suddenly put this brewery-turning-21 stuff into an entirely new context.

In this case as well as the importance of context there’s the matter of repercussions. Schalfly Beer turned 21 years old last week. Sometime after that a child would have been conceived under the influence of likely more than one Schlafly beer. The company would like to make sure that bit of history isn’t lost, as Schlafly explained in the employee blog.

As most remaining ARs (adult readers) realize, Schlafly Beer celebrated its 21st birthday on December 26, 2012. Thus, according to my calculations, the first baby conceived by one or both parents under the influence of our beer is likely to celebrate his or her 21st birthday sometime in the fall of 2013. The obvious way to recognize this individual would be to buy him or her a beer on his or her birthday. The problem, however, is that this person is not yet old enough to drink legally. As a socially responsible company we are not allowed to market to this person, whoever he or she may be. We can, however, reach out to the conceiving parents, which is exactly what we’re doing.

If any of you amorous readers (yet another kind of ARs), think you may be the parents of the first baby conceived under the influence of Schlafly Beer, we encourage you to share your story by sending it to questions@schlafly.com. I’m not exactly sure what kind of recognition we plan to give to the individuals involved (conceivers and conceived) and would welcome recommendations on this point from other ARs. Depending on the response, we may post parental recollections of moments of conception on line and let ARs help us decide what kind of recognition would be appropriate. It might even be worth posting maternal and paternal memories separately and comparing them for consistency. Embarrassed offspring will not be allowed to comment until after they’ve celebrated their 21st birthdays, by which time their parents’ stories will have gone viral and it will be too late.

Benjamin Braddock: Goddamn, that’s great. So old Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford.

*****

Why “Wheat Ale” rather than “Pale Ale”? See Stephen Hale’s explanation.

Another definition of, well, not ‘craft’ beer

Schalfly Irish StoutLet’s just call it a “good thing.”

The picture to the right made me smile first thing this morning when I saw Jared Williamson’s tweet from a few hours before.

Williamson is a shift brewer at The Saint Louis Brewery’s production brewery, otherwise known as Bottleworks, where they conjure up Schlafly beers. (He also makes a brief appearance in a book about hops you are sick of hearing about.) Somebody should be collecting the Twitter exchanges between he and Jeremy Danner, although like the message with this photo — “This is Irish Extra Stout w/fermcap. 202BBL in a 210BBL tank” — they might be too “inside baseball.”

The events of this morning got me thinking about the tweet itself. Not the words or the photo, but that it even happened.

First, there was an op-ed piece in today’s Post-Dispatch by Charlie Papazian and Bob Pease of the Brewers Association and Schalfly CEO Dan Kopman, headlined: “Craft or crafty? Consumers deserve to know the truth.” This was followed by a press release from the BA: “Craft vs. Crafty: A Statement from the Brewers Association.” And that included a link to a list of domestic non-craft breweries.

“Craft” has been talked to death in the U.S. beer blogosphere for years and now has infected England as well. I can hardly wait to read the same old debate in German and Polish. And, repeating what I typed here last week, this blog exists because I think the “where” (including where it is brewed, obviously) in beer matters. So I have nothing new to say on the craft/crafty front.

Instead, back to that tweet.

It connects us (whoever “us” is, but I think it is more than one guy who lives three miles from the brewery) to Schlafly beer in a way a commercial that costs more than a million dollars to show during the Super Bowl cannot.

That’s a “good thing.”

That some guy who works in the brewery took the time to snap the photo and type the words is also a “good thing.”

That nobody in “corporate” stopped him, that’s astonishing (other than the fact that Schlafly doesn’t exactly have a “corporate,” but stick with me, please). You think a shift brewer at one of the world’s brewing giants is sending foam-soaked tweets from a fermentation cellar? “Don’t let a focus group get a look at that foam.”

In the course of the morning crafty tweet overload, Danner made a fine point about the dangers of defining anything based on “what it’s not” as opposed to “what it is,” but this is an example of something that makes Schlafly-Boulevard-CivilLife-Perennial-4Hands-UrbanChestnut-and-so-in-St.Louis-and-then-beyond different. And it’s a “good thing.”

Session #61: Because it’s local, dammit

The SessionThis month host Matt Robinson asked us to write about “What makes local beer better?” for The Session 61. I found myself staring at his marching orders like a deer in headlights (or a thirsty drinker in front of 62 tap handles). Matt asked a series of questions that left me feeling as focused as his Twitter feed. And 852 words into answering each of them individually I realized I still hadn’t pointed out that we have a St. Louis ZIP and there are six breweries between our house and Anheuser-Busch, and the closest is Schalfly Bottleworks. It’s Schalfly’s production brewery, but the beer to drink right now is Amarillo Session Ale, available only at the attached restaurant/pub. In other words, only locally. 852 words? I’m sure you would have loved the technical discussion about volatile hop aromas, but I hit delete. Instead, one thought.

Beer is a sum of its parts, which include the humans who make the beer and the consumers who drink it. It’s not beer when the ingredients arrive on a truck, wherever that truck might have come from. It turns into beer locally. Magic.

The good, the bad and the feel good

The good

First we’ve got the Chicago Tribune update: “The world of Chicago-made beer is expanding so quickly — at a rate unseen in the lives of modern-day beer lovers — that new entries arrive almost monthly.” A complete rundown.

There’s there’s the Boston Globe: “Region awash in new wave of niche breweries.” Includes the big question (and no answer), “How many will survive the long haul? No one knows.”

The other day I had a quick keep-it-to-less-than-140-characters exchange with a professional brewer not in St. Louis. He asked, in view of the number of relatively new breweries and additional ones about to open here, how many I think the region can support. I copped out and answered I’m too new to town to guess.

The answer is that a lot more [xxx]¹ beer is going to be sold annually. Will it be more Stone beers (just came into town with lots of fanfare), more Perennial beers (not open yet), more Schlafly (celebrating its 20th anniversary), more Urban Chestnut, Boulevard, Green Flash, beers imported by Shelton Brothers? Can’t tell you, but it will be a lot more. I hope quality makes a difference, but that won’t be the only factor.

¹ Insert whatever term you want: craft, boutique, microbrewed.

The bad

“America’s Finest Beer Festival” in San Diego was canceled rather last minute. There’s a joke in there involving the word “finest” but I sense some people might have got screwed here. A strange story.

The feel good

Stone Brewing has guaranteed that the Japanese Red Cross Society will receive at least $50,000 from its latest collaboration beer, Baird/Ishii/Stone Japanese Green Tea IPA. Toshi Ishii — a former intern-then-brewer at Stone and now owner of Ishii Brewing in Guam — contacted Stone brewmaster Mitch Stone Steele after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster about brewing a beer that would aid the recovery effort. Bryan Baird of Baird Brewing in Numazu made it a threesome.

The beer is “‘dry-hopped’ with Sencha, a variety of whole-leaf Japanese green tea.” Details are at the Stone Blog, but between the tea and various hops the beer certainly makes a green, herbal impression.

Beyond the obvious relief for Japan, hop growers in France may also benefit. After France lost Alsace-Lorraine to German in 1871 and nearly until World War I the region was second only to Bavaria in hop production in the Germany empire. Not all the hops grown in the Alsace had a great reputation, but Strisselspalter (or Strisselspalt, depending on the catalog you are using) is wonderfully aromatic and spicy.

Strisselspalter accounted for 82% of the hops grown in the Alsace in 2008, and production dove 53% in 2009. There are a variety reasons, one of which is that it’s a low alpha hop. Even at a time when [xxx]¹ brewers put a growing premium on aroma quality they want more alpha than the hop provides.

Aramis is a new variety from the growers in the Alsace, with about twice the alpha acids (8 AAUs, so not a heavyweight) and many of the same flavor and aroma qualities as Strisselspalter. According to the Stone Blog this might be the first commercial beer made with Aramis. Given the complex hop recipe and presence of green tea you wouldn’t call it a showcase for Aramis, but you gotta think it’s going to start showing up in other beers. Reason for hop growers in the Alsace to hope.

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