May 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
(this post still needs some editing but I wanted to get it out to the public as I have not seen these important issues addressed elsewhere)
As I write this I am reviewing the beverage list of a national chain with a decent wine, beer and cocktail selection. In this restaurant I can spend $9 and get a 6 oz. glass of Blackstone Merlot or for slightly less, a 22 oz. bottle of Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale. I will confess that I know both of these products very well and the beer is an exceptional value, priced about twice the retail price. On the other hand I can probably buy a full bottle at retail for the glass price, a 4 times retail mark-up. Oh, the ale is rated 93 by The Beer Advocate, the Merlot I doubt is held in such high esteem.
In 30 years the United States beer industry has gone from and object of international ridicule to the epicenter of brewing innovation. While European brewers remain mired in tradition, American craft brewers are creating completely new products, even partnering with wine and spirits producers to create new hybrid products e.g. Dogfish Head Noble Rot, a combination of botrytis-affected Viognier grape must and beer.
Craft brewers have been able to do everything wine has done and more. The basic difference is that the preponderance of local brewers means that the person attending the beer dinner is the actual owner or brewmaster, not a stand-in from the distributor or importer. Brewers are willing to take risks to promote their products in ways that most wineries would find ‘uncomfortable’. If you are a fan of the HBO hit series, “Game of Thrones” you know that there are multiple references to wine and wine regions. The leading characters are all seen drinking wine. Beer on the show is portrayed as the beverage of the common man and never mentioned by name. Yet the highly respected Ommegang brewery of Cooperstown has now released its 4th Game of Thrones beer under licensing from the show’s creators. According to industry sources these beers account for 8% of Ommegang revenue. So where is the Game of Thrones wine? Or perhaps a better question is, where is there a winery with an equivalent reputation to Ommegang willing to take the risk of producing a Game of Thrones wine?
This ties in with number 3. Who is a local consumer and restaurant going to support more, a brewer in his/her state (or hometown) or a winery 2000 miles away. Local nearly always trumps global. Also, and this is very important. Brewers and their gatekeepers don’t trash talk other brewers! During the 4 years I served as Director of Sales at New Amsterdam brewing, I never heard one brewer malign another, even if it were Budweiser (which performed remarkably well in blind tastings). Compare that with the nasty treatment received by wine blogger s and certain sommeliers regarding the products of America’s largest wineries. If it weren’t for Gallo and Kendall-Jackson making wine accessible to wine drinkers, most of us in this industry would not have jobs, yet the unrelenting vitriol directed at most mass-market wine in the blogosphere has no parallel in brewing. Sam Calagione, the founder of the highly regarded Dogfish Head Brewery once said, “The craft brewing industry is 99% asshole free.” Can the wine industry make the same claim? Those of us who have spent years in the wine business chuckle at the proposition.
Beer has national and regional chains devoted to it. Yardhouse, Rockbottom, B.J.s Brewhouse, Gordon Biersch, even local San Diego brewer Karl Strauss has 7 restaurants devoted to its output. Where is the equivalent for the wine industry, where is a national chain of wine bars? Craft brewers have their ‘temples’ spread across the country, proselytizing thousands everyday to the glories of beer.
Craft brewers have used wine yeast, used bourbon and wine barrels, fruit, spices, wine must even Brettanomyces to make new products. Their imagination and experimentation seems limitless. They are willing to release small amounts of these products to the general public in the form of limited release bottle or draft and create a new product to replace it when it runs out.
- New Traditions
There was a time that fall meant one thing to beer lovers, Oktoberfest beers. Now it means Pumpkin Ale and the start of Winter Warmer, Christmas Ales followed by spring’s Bock Beers and then summer ales, Hefenweizen and shandys. Granted, brewers have more flexibility when creating seasonal products than wine producers, but their model of collectively releasing a specific product seasonally creates anticipation by the consume and a great deal of positive PR. The only equivalent in the wine industry is Beaujolais Nouveau which, after years of hype and relatively sub-standard product has pretty much eliminated any Beaujolais from mainstream wine list.
- Customer Loyalty
Craft brewing loyalty is based on location and innovation. You want to test this – ask a Vermont beer aficionado about Heady Topper or a one from Northern California about Pliny the Elder or one from Chicago about Bourbon County. The are all cult beers , all in high demand, 95+ rated products that any working class beer drinker can afford. And all are in limited supplies that appear just once a year. Does the wine industry have an equivalent? Of course there is Screaming Eagle et al. but these cannot be accessed or purchased by commoners, 1-precenters only need apply.
- Food Compatibility
American food (comfort food that is, not the elitist American cuisine created in the past generation) is first and foremost a beer compatible cuisine. Burger, barbecue, fried chicken, all type of picnic fare is working class, food for the masses, all of whom grew up consuming beer. In the world of casual dining, it is beer that has the advantage by virtue of its historic association with American ‘peasant’ food and the fact that the mainly northern European immigrants that brought this food to America also brought their brewing skills.
In comparison to wine, the beer gatekeepers are fewer in number and less strident in their opinions. This allows them to embrace new products, technologies and promotions with greater ease than the opinion shapers in the wine industry. Do you recall the reaction by Italy’s DOC when the Antinori family wished to release wines made with non-traditional grapes in Tuscany. They were forced to use a table wine designation. In the 1990’s, when I was presenting Sonoma Wine to NYC restaurateurs at a time when Sonoma was winning more medals in competition that Napa wine in all varieties except Cabernet Sauvignon, it was extremely difficult to break into Napa-centric wine selections. The prejudice was found when introducing ultra-premium Chilean wines that clearly outmatched its Californian and European competition in its price range. The critical difference with beer gatekeepers is they have not built barriers to accepting new ideas and concepts.