Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Low Can They Go?

If you're lucky enough to live in Chicago, Dallas, San Diego or one of 12 other special places, you've no doubt been on a heavy Bud Select 55 binge ever since the new low-calorie brew was dropped in select test markets earlier this month.

Spurred by the apparent success of MGD 64, the new figure-watcher from MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch InBev has upped (lowered?) the ante with an ultra-light beer of its own, prompting the usual ripples of discontent to spread throughout the beer-appreciating world.

The Internet has not been quiet on this one. Drink Update said of the announcement, "How depressing ... Does this mean we can stop calling it beer?" Advertising Age called ABIB's restraint in opting against two additional "55" variations "an apparent gift to beer drinkers everywhere."

"I mean, where does it stop?" Ad Age's Jeremy Mullman lamented.

Above: It could have been worse. (Via Ad Age)

"Light Beer Arms Race Gets Absurd," declared the Washington City Paper. "At some point, you've just got to call it water."

But perhaps my favorite remark is this exasperated plea from the blog Seattle Beer News: "Just stop it."

What many observers have rightly pointed out, beyond the obvious questions over just how much flavor beers with such absurdly low alcohol contents can have (the answer: not very much at all), is the fact that there is one critical component that makes beer beer, and there's simply no getting around the calories it contributes: alcohol.

No surprise, then, that as the calorie wars escalate, alcohol contents must necessarily decline. MDG 64, practically kiddie strength at 2.8% alcohol by volume, is no match for Bud Select 55's 2.4%. That's no typo – even if you doubled Select 55's booze quotient, it'd still fall somewhere between the already-light Bud Light and its plenty-light-as-it-is big sibling, Budweiser. Wow.

At this point it becomes worth asking just how wise it is to pay regular-strength-beer prices for a product that is – there's no other way to describe it – literally watered down. You could buy regular Bud, cut it half-and-half with seltzer water, and basically wind up with Bud Select 55 for half the price. No joke. Or, you could drink half as many regular beers with water alternated in between. Or you could recognize that beer contains calories; try eating well and exercising as proper antidotes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Czechvar Glass

Quick language lesson: In German, the suffix -er is commonly used to denote that a person or thing originates from a particular place – for example, a "Berliner" is a person from Berlin. (It is also, though not necessarily, a jelly doughnut.)

Though few people realize it, this convention is responsible for the name of the world's most famous beer style: Pilsener (variably spelled "Pilsner"). This style was first created in the Bohemian town of Plzeň, in what is today the Czech Republic. The area then belonging to the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was commonly known by its German name, Pilsen, and hence the immensely popular and revolutionary beer style originating there came to be known, consistent with the language, as "Pilsener."

Beer lovers might know where I'm going with this. There is a city in the Czech Republic that was once, and in Germany still is, known by its German name "Budweis." In accordance with convention, the beer brewed there – and there are two major breweries that have since the late 1800s offered their version of Pilsener-style beer – has been known as "Budweiser." Predictably, and as many are aware, this has lead to a never-ending dispute between the brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch, owners of the American Budweiser, and the smaller Czech brewers who likewise have the legal right to this name. I won't rehash the history of that squabble here; Internet searches are very handy for that.

One of the breweries at the center of this ongoing spat is Budweiser Budvar, National Corporation, whose flagship product goes by the name "Budweiser" in much of the world and "Czechvar" in the U.S. Which, finally, brings us to this glass.

Budweiser a.k.a. Czechvar is a delightful Pilsener brewed in the Bohemian tradition. Thanks to a recent importation agreement with, of all companies, Anheuser-Busch, Czechvar has enjoyed increasingly strong availability here in recent years. Say what you will about the parties involved; this is a good thing for beer drinkers.

Befitting a beer of such historic and stylistic importance, not to mention its quality, the Czechvar glass is an elegant tulip-style piece of stemware with golden accents. The small text reads "Imported Original Premium Czech Lager" (doesn't that honor go to Pilsner Urquell?) while the seal of the city of České Budějovice, the Czech name for the home of Budweiser/Czechvar, sits above.

An attractive glass such as this one does well with equally lovely beers inside it – clear, golden, sparkling offerings like Pilsner, Helles, Golden/Blonde Ales. The combination makes for a striking, and mouthwatering, visual effect. Being the fine piece of glassware that it is, fun to look at and drink from, I've even put heftier fare like Bourbon Smoked Porter inside.

Beer aficionados tend to lament the arbitrary moniker Czechvar is forced to wear in the U.S. (and Canada too), rightly observing that if any beer should have access to the strictly descriptive label "Budweiser," this one sure qualifies. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that Budweiser Budvar's naming status on our side of the pond is fairly settled – best to simply enjoy a world-class beer and the fine glass it's served in.

Monday, August 17, 2009

And now for another episode of "Resentful Craft Beer Lover Sounds Off on Mega-Brew Advertising"

For several months I've resisted the urge to lambaste Miller for their fairly recent, and thoroughly asinine, "triple hops brewed" advertising campaign for Miller Lite. Surely you've seen the commercials, and you've heard Miller proclaim that this process, which they seem giddily proud of, is responsible for Lite's "great pilsner taste."

I don't need to spend much effort telling you why this claim doesn't amount to squat. That's been done so many times already. Here's just a quick summary:
  1. "Triple hops brewing" is essentially standard procedure. Bittering, flavor and aroma – presto, three hop additions. Congratulations Miller, you know how to brew.
  2. It doesn't matter how many hop additions you use if the quantity is barely above the threshold of human perception.
  3. As a marketing term, "triple hops brewed" lies somewhere between the "yeah, so?" plainly descriptive and the nonsensical. Miller wants you to believe they're educating you with a bit of inside-baseball brewing terminology, then they turn around and trademark the phrase, something you do for contrived marketingspeak – which this basically is.
  4. Miller has been insulting consumers for years with their "true pilsner taste" claims – never mind the fact that we know and can both qualitatively and quantitatively state what Pilsners are and what beers like Miller Lite are. You better believe Miller knows the difference, and they just don't care.
  5. If a Miller Lite drinker was actually looking for beer with some measure of hops in it, and you gave him one (an IPA, say), odds are decent he'd find it unpalatable. And that's OK. Miller should stop pretending the beer is something it's not – after all, the consumers Miller is going after already have a pretty good idea what Lite tastes like, and it's disingenuous to suggest that any perceptible differences between it and the other brands come down to Miller's generous use of hops.
For as many facepalms as the Big 3's ads tend to prompt, there's only so much use (which is to say, not much) in taking them on point-for-point. But what all this nonsense does is help bring further into focus what we've long known about mass-market beer advertising: that truth, honesty, objectivity and relevance have about as much place here as they do in an Axe body spray commercial. No revelations here; I've harped on this before.

Still, while this sort of chicanery doesn't surprise us, that it has become so routine does not excuse it either. And routine it is: Miller's not the only brewer bent on annihilating the line between beer hype and education.
  • Coors Light's handlers continue to hammer away at the meaningless premise that their "frost-brewed" (another non sequitor masquerading as procedural descriptor) beer "tastes" cold. (Where's the "* refrigerator not included" disclaimer?)
  • ABIB has been touting the "drinkability" of Bud Light while assuring us that its "perfect" flavor is neither too light nor too heavy. (Makes you wonder. What would be "too light"? ABIB's Michelob Ultra, about as light as they get? And "too heavy"? Perhaps ABIB's Budweiser, all of 4.9% alcohol?)
What gets me is not that the ABIBs and MillerCoorses of the world employ such tactics at all. It's the fact that they seem to believe market share is entirely about who can play the game better. To some extent it's true – Bud Light didn't get to be America's top-selling brand by packing the most flavor into every 12 oz. bottle. But if consumer research and sales data tell us that beer drinkers are moving to more flavorful offerings, the answer is not to try and convince deserters that, yes, Bud/Miller/Coors does actually have all the flavor you're looking for (silly you for walking away).

We can't really expect anything to change until the bottom-line pressures become overwhelming. Right now they must not be, so the games continue. Yes, the major brewers have done plenty of experiments with offering more flavorful beers – and when that hasn't worked they always go back to beefing up the core brands. And let's be honest, light-beer drinkers (who, like it or not, seem to generally respond to light-beer ads) remain a far more attractive constituency than curmudgeonly beer geeks calling B.S. on Madison Avenue's latest head-scratchers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beer in Bermuda

What can be said about beer on the otherwise lovely island nation of Bermuda? Unfortunately, not much – and that's a phrase that also describes both the quality and depth of the selection available on this Atlantic paradise.

Which is a shame, especially considering Bermuda's history and heritage. Founded by the English and still part of the United Kingdom, Bermuda is home to a handful of British-style pubs, which strictly speaking should probably be deemed more authentic than most such taverns found off the Queen's immediate turf. How appropriate, then, would it be to find quality British ales (to say nothing of cask-conditioned real ales) in the Bermudian environs, even if weather concerns demanded more in the way of easy-drinking Milds and Bitters, as opposed to Porters, Old Ales and the like.

Instead, we mostly find world lagers like the fairly ubiquitous Heineken, Carlsberg and Stella Artois, with the occasional Guinness and, perhaps surprisingly, Sam Adams sprinkled in. Yes, there's also Amstel Light along with the American Big Three.

Fairness compels me to make a few observations. First, one does not visit Bermuda for the beer selection. Beer geeks might instead focus on the gorgeous scenery and great snorkeling – two areas where Bermuda arguably trumps, say, a Brussels or a London. Second, there is at least one brewery on the island, more than can be said for many places around the world, though I can't speak to the quality of their wares as I did not have a chance to visit. Also, let's not forget that in a climate like Bermuda's, often your lighter lagers are just what the doctor ordered, and indeed one could do worse (one could also do better, but one could do worse) than Heinie, Stella, Sam Adams, and so on.

Lastly, I should mention the hidden gem known as Miles Market, in Hamilton, where a beer-starved visitor will likely to be shocked to find such high-quality offerings as Chimay, Saison Dupont, Victory, Dogfish Head, Westmalle, Paulaner and Fullers, among others. This selection is particularly surprising given that I did not see any of these beers for sale at restaurants or bars. And their mere availability at one spot makes the relative meagerness encountered elsewhere all the more unfortunate.

The island isn't completely wanting for welcome treats when out and about. Real Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, that of the high-octane variety, can be found at otherwise hopeless (for beer, that is) joints like your beachside food shacks. (Now, Beer Advocate indicates there are also local versions of FES from Bahamas and Jamaica; I must say I don't recall reading on the label where Bermuda gets theirs from.)

Rich and hearty, yet strangely refreshing enough for tropical weather, FES affords a great chance to unwind in unique island style. Oh, and perhaps best of all, you can do so while enjoying this kind of view from the porch:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Blogger Scorns Craft Beer; Fires of Rectification Rain Down via Comments Section

As reported recently by The Beer Brotha, MSNBC stock blogger James Dlugosch stirred up a little more reader interaction than he bargained for in observing recently – in a post about beer, mind you – that "despite what the microbrewers will tell you, all beer is pretty much the same."

You can guess what happened next. Out from the woodwork came beer lovers eager to defend their beloved suds' honor. And boy did they, with a ferocity and bluntness that only the Internet can facilitate. Browse through the comments yourself, or see The Beer Brotha's take for some highlights. Reactions ranged from the "you're-dead-to-me" disdainful to the bitingly sarcastic. Plenty managed to capture the sense of dumbstruck amusement most of us felt after Mr. Dlugosch had so naively – and unfortunately – laid bare his sheer ignorance on the topic he was (we are to presume) being paid to write about. Such tragedy! Such comedy!

Fifteen pages into the ensuing flame-fest, Mr. Dlugosch emerged, lumps confessedly taken, to offer his mea culpa:

Uncle, Uncle Uncle. I give up. Not all beer tastes the same. My bad. In making somewhat of a throw away comment - poorly written at that - I raised the ire of the entire beer drinking nation. How can I rejoin the club? Perhaps if I figure out how to shotgun a beer from a box I would earn back my stripes. It would have been better stated to say that the big beer brands all taste the same (they do at least to me). Anyway, the point of the blog seems to be lost as I really was merely trying to poke fun at the idea of beer in a box. Again my apologies for offending anyone.

Jamie Dlugosch (returning from a trip behind the comment woodshed)

So we're good now, right? Evidently not – currently there are 71 pages of comments; Mr. Dlugosch's apology did little to slacken the onslaught.

Perhaps that's because it may have had the opposite effect. There are clues aplenty in Mr. Dlugosch's reply that he may not have been as contrite as he wanted us to think. Let's take a closer look.

Excerpt: "I give up. Not all beer tastes the same."
Interpretation: Give them what they want right off the bat. "You win, I'm wrong. Happy now?"

Excerpt: "My bad."
Interpretation: Smacks a little of wave-of-the-hand, forced-apology insincerity, doesn't it? This is how young people "apologize" for things, and we all know how insincere young people are.

Excerpt: "... a throw away comment - poorly written at that ... It would have been better stated to say that the big beer brands all taste the same (they do at least to me)."
Interpretation: On this last point he appears to finally "get it," though he may simply be trying to score points by echoing the sentiments of microbrew-loving commenters who had already clarified Mr. Dlugosch's statement for him. At any rate, the problem wasn't with how inartfully the offending sentence was crafted – it was the content itself. Mr. Dlugosch takes a clear shot at microbrewers and then implies that they simply offer style over substance. If this knock was, as claimed, meant to apply only to mass-market brewers, the sentence should have read: "Just as the microbrewers will tell you, all megabrewed beer is pretty much the same." In this sense, Mr. Dlugosch would be agreeing with microbrewers, not calling them out. Sorry, but you can't chalk this up to erroneous wordsmithing.

Excerpt: "How can I rejoin the club? Perhaps if I figure out how to shotgun a beer from a box I would earn back my stripes."
Interpretation: Practically drips with disdain for "the beer drinking nation" he seeks to make amends with. "OK, beer losers, if I do a keg stand, will you stop crying?"

Excerpt: "Anyway, the point of the blog seems to be lost as I really was merely trying to poke fun at the idea of beer in a box."
Interpretation: "Thanks for ruining my hilarious blog post. Losers."

Excerpt: "Again my apologies for offending anyone."
Interpretation: "Lighten up, crybabies."

I should add that I myself have not gotten worked up into a lather over this brouhaha. Mainstream media's ignorance concerning beer stopped shocking me long ago. Yes, it's discouraging on one level, but mostly I find the whole episode entertaining and amusing.

To his credit, Mr. Dlugosch on Friday addressed the issue in a full post inviting beer nation to a discussion on the financial health of the industry, craft and macro. It would have been easy for him to brush off the episode – after all, most of the angry readers likely had simply been tipped off by friends or Internet sleuths; the whole of MSNBC's regular readership didn't need apologizing to. So at least he reached out and tried to right a wrong. Mr. Dlugosch opened with another full retraction and an apology that rang a little less hollow than his previous one, but then no doubt sent a few palms to foreheads in pondering, "While it may be true that the microbrewers craft a wonderful-tasting product, it's not so certain that they make money."

Alas, more enlightenment is in order for poor, embattled Mr. Dlugosch. A more accurate statement might be: "While it is true that many microbreweries have failed, particularly as the bubble burst in the 90's, plenty do make money." One need only consider the slew of successful craft brewers operating today. Mr. Dlugosch acknowledges the publicly-traded Boston Beer Co. – how about big players like Sierra Nevada and the ever-expanding New Belgium; growing outfits like Left Hand; or little-known brands like Houston's Saint Arnold, which doesn't sell a drop of beer outside Texas yet has been expanding for years and is in the middle of moving into a new, larger facility entirely. Or how about upstarts like Charleston, S.C.'s Coast Brewing Co., which would sell more beer if they could only keep up with demand.

So yes, craft beer makes money. Like any other businesses, microbreweries that are well-run, offer a quality product and honor market demands can and do succeed. Not to the extent that brands like Bud, Miller and Coors do – no doubt about that – but I think most craft brewers would tell you they have no interest in that kind of success. Perhaps Mr. Dlugosch meant "it's not so certain that they make enough money to turn the head of a market analyst or stock trader."

No knock on him (necessarily), but perhaps in Mr. Dlugosch's world, if you're not making big moolah, you're not making money. So be it. But I think there's a place in our economy for small, locally run businesses that offer unique, high-quality (and yes, diverse) products to a fervently devoted, if relatively small, constituency.
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