Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Putting Beer Marketing Before Flavor (Rant)

Short's Bloody Beer, DFH Liquor de Malt, and Bell's Batch 6000.I realize this blog primarily documents my homebrewing and fermentation exploits, but I’m also a passionate craft beer consumer. Craft beers often inspire me and gives me the chance to see how flavor combinations work before brewing a 5 gallon batch of something I won't enjoy. There are such a great variety of breweries out there that focus on different types of beer (which is terrific). It is great to live in a country where different breweries focus on German lagers, English ales, Belgians, sours, super hoppy beers, or create beers of their own styling.  Near the end of his life Michael Jaskson said, "The U.S. is the best place in the world to be a beer-drinker." I couldn't agree more.

There are however a couple of craft breweries that need to cut the crap and put the beer first rather than brewing beers based on a stupid gimmick (ingredient or process) or just a catchy name (that is what the Macros do best).  Beer should be about the sensory experience primarily, not the story. My problem isn't “extreme” beer,  there are plenty of crazy beers that I love: Sanctification, Canadian Breakfast Stout, Bon Chien, Abrasive… powerful, complex beers that still put flavor first.  Brewers should make decisions based on what is best for the beer, not the marketing.

The beer that prompted this post was Genesis 15:15 from He’Brew, a beer made with 15 malts, 15 hops, and fermented to 15% ABV (Edit: plus pomegranates, figs, dates and grapes...). To me it’s like a restaurant marketing their new meatball by saying it has 30 ingredients (but not what they are) and half your fat for the day.  Adding more malts and hops doesn’t lead to a more complex beer, it leads to a muddled mess unless you know exactly what you are doing. Bell’s took a similar approach with Batch 10,000 but added an additional 100 malts and 50 hops. On a certain level they get some credit for doing something so over the top (especially as an homage to homebrewer’s cabinet cleaning recipes) but I can’t imagine that they decided on that recipe because they thought it would make for the best tasting beer.

Dogfish Head is probably the poster child for this junk. Beers like Sah’tea, I imagine the thought process was something like: "Why don't we take a traditional Finnish style (Sahti) that is almost extinct, double the alcohol, and add tea masala because the name of the style sounds like tea…"  They built their reputation by tweaking beers with one weird ingredient or technique (Chicory Stout, 60 Minute etc…) it seems like now they are just brewing things that will either be cool to show on Brew Masters or get written up in the New York Times.

Short’s Brewing certainly deserves a mention as well, since this sort of garbage makes up half their portfolio. They do everything from Bloody Beer (all the flavors of a bloody Mary in beer form) to Key Lime (with limes, gram cracker, and marshmallow – I don’t even think there are marshmallows in key lime pie…). One of this year’s new releases is a cream ale with pistachios (Pistachio Crème Ale), does anyone think that sounds like something they want a case of?  The best beer I've had from them was barrel aged Sustenance (which was unintentionally sour).

This isn’t just an American problem (although we are the ones who started it). European breweries like Brew Dog (all those 30%+ ABV ice distilled beers), Mikkeller (1000 IBU, Black), not to mention some of the weird stuff exported from Italy/Belgium that they can't sell much of locally.  It seems like even more of a shock in Europe where there are centuries old breweries that haven't expanded their recipe portfolio beyond a handful of styles. 

I’m not saying that I haven’t had any good beers from these breweries, just that I tend to avoid them unless I’ve heard good things about a particular beer. I think recently there has been far too much buzz about one-offs, collaborations, weird ingredients, and market driven ideas. Brewing something new is a lot of fun, but making great beer takes refinement and fine tuning that it is impossible to get in special one-batch-only releases.  With so many great beers fighting for shelf space I can understand why cramming in yet another pale ale into the market won’t cut it, but many breweries would be served well by focusing on improving their core brands and seaonals rather than releasing zany one-offs.

There are some breweries that really seem to get it, Firestone Walker, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, Great Lakes, Surly, Cantillon, and Troegs (to name just a few). They experiment, but they do it the right way, experimenting quietly (either with a tasting room, or local keg/bottle releases) with flavor first beers that strive to be balanced and drinkable first and foremost. Their beers are not always great (although sometimes they are), but they are rarely bad, and all of them seem to be getting better and more consistent as time goes on. 

I think similar advice is valuable for homebrewers. You can try to brew some wild stuff if you want (and you should), but always focus on the flavor of the beer rather than using an interesting technique or ingredient for its own sake.  Brewing is a craft, it is about process, technique, ingredient selection, as well as experimentation and recipe design.


TJD said...

Fun to see a passionate post. =-)

It ignited some passion from me reading it. I partially agree with what you are saying, but I also really enjoy some weird stuff that is put out there. Well brewed beer is hands-down a great objective, but how you reach that objective and how subjective it can be makes it hard to judge these "gimmicky" beers.

I'd be sad if I didn't have the opportunity to try DFH's crazy stuff. Not because it is always a slam dunk, but because they use such interesting ingredients and techniques - they give me a taste I've never had before. I value novelty in my beer - I love a good IPA as much as the next person, but I also enjoy having my taste stimulated.

Does something more gimmicky like 10000 malts stimulate my taste? Probably not. So I'll take the middle ground here and say, novel tastes mass (or medium) marketed = good, gimmicks that add nothing new to taste = bad.

twigboy2000 said...

We had Bell's 10000 at our New Year's party. To say that is was a let-down is an understatement based on the amount of hype behind the beer.

Not sure if we just had it past it's prime or if there was a process problem, but it had a distinct vegetal aroma and flavor that was rather disconcerting. Somewhere in the oregano/bokchoy combo range.

I can see some benefit to pushing the envelope and expanding brewing horizons, but too often these type beers are simple marketing devices that are rushed out the door of the brewery.

Unknown said...

You make excellent points. Usually when someone goes on a beer rants it is just complaining without backing it up.

I think some peoples passion for brewing can come off as gimmicky to others.

I have been lucky enough to meet or correspond with many people from Short's. Their inclusion on your list doesn't sit well with me. A large majority of the experimental beers which are coming out of the brewery were brewed long before distribution. Joe has a passion for experimentation. Short's puts out a very solid line up of year round offerings and chooses to experiment with the seasonals. I am glad to see a brewery do something different in their seasonal releases rather than blend in. I think Joe is doing what he wants and is enjoying himself along the way. Call it gimmicky, I see a brewery who cares about what they do and loves doing it.

Good read. Cheers!

danger said...

I'd say bells gets a pass since the rest of their stuff is so solid, but that Dogfish Head and BrewDog stuff is ridiculous and cheapens our industry. Someone here mentioned DFH using interesting techniques and aside from the chicha (1. that isn't their technique and 2. there is a reason this isn't done in civilization) they seem to use the same [lack of] technique in all their beers: throw a bunch of shit together and pump out as much as we can as fast as possible. It's sad that these days people look at really well made beers as boring if they aren't super over the top or full of strange ingredients.

I am actually somewhat surprised to see your rant on them considering you also make some beers with non-traditional ingredients (heavy peat-malt beer, squash beer, etc). I'm not knocking you for them because you're writing is good and you are pretty objective in your tasting descriptions.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It was as much a rant about the people who hype/publicize the weird beers over the beers that are well done (whether or not they contain weird beers). Bell's was probably unfairly maligned, for the most part they do a great job with their beers (especially their stouts, and IPAs).

My complaint isn't that DFH or Short's try weird things (obviously I love the same stuff), it is that they don't do it very well. It should be about using weird ingredients to enhance the character of the beer rather than just to have something to plaster on the label.

As a homebrewer I feel that part of my job is to experiment so I can learn the impact/limits of different ingredients and techniques. When I'm paying $15 for a 750 I don't want to be tasting an experiment; for that price I should get a refined, balanced, beverage, not a first draft.

TJD said...

I strongly disagree with the statement that DFH doesn't use interesting techniques. Chicha is just one example. Sahtea used hot stones in the wort - ala old Finland. Chateau Jiahu was brewed with sake yeast. Festina Peche rolled out Berlinerweisse style way before I ever saw it in the US. These are just a few examples. You might not like their beers. You might not like the mass-media they generate- particularly with this weird show. But it is missing the mark to say they don't use interesting techniques. Some of their beers I would not buy again, but I'm thankful that I got the chance to try them without having to sell one of my organs (*coughbrewdogcough*). I don't find most of their beers gimmicky. I find them to be legitimate forays into interesting - perhaps previously abandoned - ideas. I find the show to be gimmicky, I'll admit that.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The question is, did you taste the impact of the hot stones in Sah'tea? Was it done to make the beer better, or because it made the story better?

If you had just been given Chateau Jiahu without explanation, would you have enjoyed it? I didn't enjoy it even with the explanation.

I honestly haven't had a new beer from them that I would drink more than once since Palo Santo Marron.

TJD said...

But how do you know if it makes the beer better unless you try? I like having a story with my beer. I like knowing that they did that and learning about the old techniques. Did it change the taste that much - I tasted some smoke that was interesting. I loved the Chicha's taste - so different and knowing about the enzymes breaking down the corn to fermentable sugars was very cool. I'd so rather have access to these beers, than for them to sit at the brewery in the experimentation room - never released. I'm trying to argue for value in releasing experimentation to the masses - as long as you impart knowledge with that release. The only reason DFH can do these experiments is because they've sold solid, well-made beer for so long.

I might be a strange market. I just love tasting new things and learning. A well-made beer is going to be tasty and I'll buy it again, but these experimental beers teach me something even though I usually will never buy them again. I'm a taste whore with ADD - what can I say?

Marco Aurélio Piacentini said...

You hitted the bull´s eye with this post!
You think exactly as I. The flavor is more important in this craft. That´s why I spent so much time researching on my Saison (crafted without the saison yeast, but with Fermentis T-58).
Now that the Nasty Blonde (that´s her name...) is fermenting, I feel really great! And I feel that way because I ran the extra mile for this beer, and will do it again, always in the search for better flavor and for the perfect beer.

Search for flavor doesn´t mean - in my opinion - to simply and blindly follow any crap the market releases,just because it´s different - even being from craft beers . I wouldn´t buy, for instance, a "mud" ale, if anyone releases it only because I have the curiosity to taste mud...

Doing something weird once in a while may be healthy, but this cannot be the primary objective, because the search must be for flavor, not for weirdness only motivated for the hollow desire of only being different.

When taqsting a beer, One must know what he wants, or at least what he´s looking for, and need to have critical judgement... Not just pointless curiosity motivated by trends.

Well.. talked too much.

Unknown said...

f'n amen. i work at a beer bar/retail store and it is so annoying when people who come in who wouldn't try an imperial stout otherwise insist they need bitches brew. then when you try and guide them in another/better direction they freak out and explain to me how it's not the same.

dfh indian brown and palo santo are the only beers i drink from them on a semi regular basis. raison d'etre is alright and their new "continually hopped" pilsner is decent. punkin is good as is festina peche but i don't get much peach in the beer.

i think brewdog should get a pass on this as they make some awesome non-extreme beers and scotland/uk are kinda backwards in their thinking about beer to some extent.

the brewmaster show is basically like an adult cartoon show. i wouldn't have a problem with it if they had properly kept up with demand.

anyways i enjoyed this post alot.

danger said...

It breaks down to the beer doesn't taste good, so the process isn't important. Unless you are taking that as inspiration to make one of your own using those methods and hopefully creating something actually good.

Adrian Avgerinos said...

Good little rant, Mike. I agree with your sentiments. Overall, I drink commercial beer mainly to be satisfied, not stimulated. Occasionally, I'll try something strange if the price is reasonable. I guess that explains why I've only tried a couple of Dogfishhead's offerings (expensive+strange=nonpurchase).

In the end, my main frustration is not with the brewery, but with the consumers (i.e. "beer geeks") who desire these freak-show liquors. The pages and pages of leg humping you see over at BeerAdvocate is much more annoying than any marketing crap.

Be excited to see your favorite brewery make a chipotle bacon sour lager. Just leave the hyperbolic crap at home. Simply using food stuffs or wood does not a world class brewery make.

Unknown said...

Excellent post-but when I look at your recipe list and see things like "Lightly spiced, sour, butternut squash, brown ale" and "No-boil Berliner Weisse 2 - Half with Cabernet juice" i've always thought that you were pretty much in this group of which you speak.

Ian said...

I agree with most of the blog post, but I think we should let these breweries do what they want and leave it to the market to sort out. I'm not going to buy Genesis 15:15 because it sounds like a terrible way to formulate a recipe, but if others want to try it that's fine. Same goes for Short's - if they can sustain a business making that stuff then good for them, otherwise they'll have to change or die. It gets tiresome seeing shelves and taps filled with wacky stuff I don't want to drink, but in the end I'll either have to live with it, or it'll disappear as people get bored and go back to looking for balance and flavor over story.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It sounds like some people are misinterpreting my rant. I’m pro-weird/interesting beers if they are done well, I just feel like many breweries are releasing beers that could have used a few more test batches (or simply weren't good ideas). You can’t brew with new ingredients/techniques (especially multiple) and expect to make a great beer on your first try. There is a big difference between brewing a beer with a flavor goal in mind, and solely adding ingredients for the purpose of marketing the beer.

My concern is that people will try something from Dogfish Head and say, “Wow extreme beer is an obnoxious fad for beer nerds.” When there are “weird” beers that a large number of people would enjoy; Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout does a really good job of combining chocolate/chile/vanilla/cinnamon to make a wonderfully complex beer that is still drinkable (although I do have Issues with Cigar City’s quality control).

As a homebrewer I am in a very different position than a commercial brewery. For one, I’m not trying to sell my beer. I’m trying to learn (and share that knowledge), not convince people to buy my beer. If I make a bad batch (and I do) the only one who suffers is me.

ssf said...

i agree with your quality over novelty sentiment, mike. i think this extends to all one-off batches, including many high alcohol/"imperial"/"extreme"/barrel aged beers that are haphazardly thrown together and brewed once as a "limited edition." i don't have much hope for this trend letting up any time soon, since the beer drinking public is currently infatuated with the obscure and overhyped.

Mark said...

Pretty good post, mostly sums up the same feelings I have had for the last couple years. I am tired of gimmick beers that don't deliver the goods.

As a homebrewer, over the last 2 years, I have been simplifying my recipes, reducing the variety of styles I brew, and improving my processes. The results have been astounding - the quality and consistency has improved drastically, and I love everything I brew (from 4-4.5% session beers to big stouts and barleywines).

I am all for experimentation, but you need to learn to walk before you can fly. And if you are always experimenting, you never really get good at anything, so you have to rely on marketing and hype to sell your beer... which really doesn't seem to jive with the craft beer ethos, does it?

Matt L said...

Slightly of topic, so forgive me. Is this really necessary?


i think brewdog should get a pass on this as they make some awesome non-extreme beers and scotland/uk are kinda backwards in their thinking about beer to some extent.

Does having a surviving indigenous beer culture make you 'backward'? Brewdog have modelled themselves exclusively on american craft brewers. Is this the measure of 'forward thinking'? Do you not think that the above view comes off as a little parochial itself?

Interesting rant. I don't think we will ever escape the narrative aspect of these stunt beers. Too cheap and effective an approach.

DougR said...

Great post. Examples from DFH to add--Black & Blue and Red & White. These beers combined to shake my DFH allegiance. I actually thought Sah-tea was quite good.
As for Bell's 10000, at least the brewer made a good product. The number of ingredients is a bit contrived because some are are just brand differences. I think this probably gave the brewer freedom to create a better beer while sticking to the marketing story. And, as you said, at least it was a tribute to homebrewing roots.

Adam Kielich said...

I couldn't agree more, although I would probably go further and say I think a lot of the imperial style beers are of the same vein. Adding more of anything to a beer does not necessarily make it better, more interesting, more complex, more enjoyable, etc. and often they come across as a way to cash in on a marketing opportunity to charge more money for a very generic beer boiled down to a higher gravity and higher IBUs.

I think you also make an excellent defense of the right way to go about making admittedly extreme beers. If they are quality products and match the quality of your standard products then it makes sense to put them out there. However, if they are substandard products it's abusive to your customers to use the reputation of your other beers to convince people to pay a good chunk of money for something that you know does not meet expectations.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering. When you name Toregs brewery, do you mean Troegs?

Enjoying a few Nugget Nectars as I type. :)

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Bah, you and your spelling... fixed.

Paul! said...

preach it brotha

I just about whacked my room mate over the head when he brought home a "Sahtea" a few weeks ago, drain pour.

How about Saison Buff? parsly sage rosemary and tyme, bad song, worse beer

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

With Saison du Buff it was silly to base the selection on a song, that said I thought they were subtle enough (especially with the rosemary) that I didn't mind it.

Adrian Avgerinos said...

"How about Saison (du) Buff? parsl(e)y sage rosemary and t(h)yme, bad song, worse beer"

Oddly enough, this beer wasn't awful. I set my expectations extremely low and was pleasantly surprised to find out it didn't taste like chicken marinade. In fact, I'd call it good for what it was. Good enough to have a second glass? Nope.

Jim said...

I love the rant... I really do believe that we have a ton in common in our view here.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, and in fact, these very same beers are in my personal rant file as well.

I listened to The Brewing Network interview with the founder of Shmaltz brewing, and hearing his attitude toward beer in general made me a non-consumer for life.

Mark said...

Just got word that Bitches Brew is coming to Canada. Retail price will be $37.50/750ml.

Good grief. I remember how Sam used to boast that DFH doesn't advertise... maybe not in the traditional sense, but c'mon, talk about hype!

Ben Fogt said...

One thing these one-off beers are doing is making more shelf space for the craft segment. If they can hold the space in small liquor stores, maybe the "specialty beers" will give way to more styles that don't get publicity like Dortmunder, small beers and naturally dark lagers.

I usually only buy beer in stores when there's a BJCP exam coming up. So i also don't feel like I have much room to complain about packaged beers.

Unknown said...

@Bosala said

Does having a surviving indigenous beer culture make you 'backward'? Brewdog have modelled themselves exclusively on american craft brewers. Is this the measure of 'forward thinking'? Do you not think that the above view comes off as a little parochial itself?

alot of traditions in various cultures are rife with bullshit. i know i probably sounds like a xenophobe but america makes tbe best beer in the world because we make all styles.

Unknown said...

Mike -

I undedrstand and respect your views. However, to quote what you said
"My complaint isn't that DFH or Short's try weird things (obviously I love the same stuff), it is that they don't do it very well. It should be about using weird ingredients to enhance the character of the beer rather than just to have something to plaster on the label".

I respectively disagree with that comment. Joe Short does many beers well. You don't win numerous awards at GABF for not doing beer well. Not sure why you feel the need to bash a small brewer like Shorts, but I think it's unfounded and short sighted. Just because you don't like a beer, the packaging or price doesn't give you the previlage to bash it.

Me thinks that the BYO articles and Brewing Network shows you've done has made your head a little to big.



The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Ron,this post was less about the specific brewers and more about a trend in craft brewing I've noticed. I'll admit I've only had a handful of Short's beers, and I may have been too quick to judge based on some off bottles. In the comments it seems like someone took umbrage with just about every one of the breweries I mentioned, we've all had different experiences and different tastes. Sorry to offend.

Anonymous said...

"Just because you don't like a beer, the packaging or price doesn't give you the previlage to bash it."

It seems a little overwrought to suggest that stating an opinion, even a strong one, is a "privilege"; and especially to suggest that said "privilege" is one that should be refereed by the manufacturers.

Matt said...

I agree whole heartedly. I'm a big fan of DFH and have been for years. But sometimes I taste one of their beers and believe they're just making something for the sake of being clever. For example "Raison D'Etre". I get the cleverness of the name... but it's just not a good beer. Overly sweet and unbalanced.

Anonymous said...

Just got in to homebrewing and your site in general.

While I agree with a lot of what you say here. I must raise exception with the BrewDog comment. Only a very small fraction of their portfolio are giant eisbock.
Their single hopped IPA ranges are fantastic example of helping to inform the customer (mostly not a lot of homebrewers) about hop varieties and their taste. A lot of their stuff warrants merit, and they've kept a handful of regular beers (Punk IPA, and Dead Pony Club for example) that are good standard beers, in an American Craft Beer movement style. They should be commended for pushing the boundaries in the UK market that has always been very conservative.

No I don't work for them either! ;)