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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

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2004 Buzz

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz


Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


October, 2004

Cleaning the Augean Stables

I don't like playing the Blame Game. Most times I don't care whose fault something is: let's just fix it. My married life got much better when, early on, I realized that it didn't matter which one of us was right or wrong, or who won. What mattered was that the fight was over, and we could get back to the loving friendship that we've enjoyed for 14 solid years. 

But sometimes the blame is part of the solution. Sometimes you have to find out who is screwing up so you can figure out what to do about it. To take that family analogy again, spraying and swatting will kill a few of the fruit flies that are infesting your house, but explaining forcefully to your kids that banana peels and peach pits have to be put directly in the garbage can instead of under their beds will put an end to it.

So what's the blame I want to lay on someone? It's big, it's hard to fight, it's pervasive, it's been going on for years. It's nothing less than the trivialization of beer. 

Does this rank up there with world hunger? The plight of people living in dictatorship? Curing cancer? Of course not. It doesn't even rank with property tax reform. But I figure if you wanted to do something about those problems (and maybe you are), you'd be reading some other website. Here we talk about beer and whiskey (and pears and chain restaurants), so this is an important part of that universe of discussion. Priorities set and calibrated? Okay. Onward.

Beer suffers from the sophomoric image promoted by the Big Three brewers. Their marketing promotes an image of beer as...stuff, something you have (but never drink, thanks to strange rules that do not allow the portrayal of someone actually drinking beer), something that makes good times happen, something in a package, a bottle, a can, a glass. The infrequent ad that actually talks about the beer rather than the precious image is notable largely as an exception, and usually talks about the ingredients, the heritage, the process, but rarely the taste in more than extremely abstract terms. The "Carb War" is a classic example: they're talking about the beer, but in extracted numbers, worse than geeks with their IBU-strutting. And when Bud Light comes along and says "Choose on taste," you're left wondering: okay, what does it taste like?

Not a lot, in all honesty. That's no big deal, and it's no stunning rip of mainstream American beer (or British 'lager,' for that matter) to say that. It's hardly a big secret. After all, what's the usual complaint made by mainstream drinkers about "other" beers? They're "too heavy," or "too filling," or, in a classic, overheard in a Texas brewpub, "I dunno...awful lot of flavor there." If these beers have too much taste, it stands to reason that the beers these fellows are used to, have much less.  And it's not even anything that bad. That's what mainstream beers are all about: crisp and refreshing, fresh and light, and that's about it. From that, the ads make sense: if you don't have flavor, you don't talk about it...because you got nothing to talk about if you do.

The result of all this deliberate marketing (and the deliberate marketing of the idea that "beer" = "mainstream American lager") has been  the trivialization of beer. Beer is all about frat-boy boozing, scantily clad women, pounding a sixer, tapping a keg of brew to get some foamy suds, the malted liquor that gets you drunker quicker. Isn't that peachy? Some craft enthusiasts have given in to this mindset: there's a guy out there right now trying to start a contract brew called Great Sex Beer, to be brewed at various brewpubs so you could say "I got Great Sex at ABC brewpub!" Brilliant. The Big Three (and Stroh and Pabst and Heileman and all the others gone down to rust and dust who polluted the waters in the same way) haven't labeled beer as the drink of buffoons enough, you want to help?

Beer suffers, the industry suffers, you suffer. Beer does not get the respect wine and spirits do, and that leads directly to things like mistreated beer at the liquor store ("It's just beer"), keg registration laws ("Kids get drunk at keggers!"), pathetically short beer lists at restaurants ("Beer? We have everything, sir: Bud, Bud Light, and Corona!"), and a general image of beer as something you only drink to get drunk, an image that opens the door to all kinds of snobbery, legal restrictions, and bad feelings.

Enough. The blame's been laid. The problem is presented. What do we do to fix it? 

Look to wine. They had exactly the same problem 30 years ago. What's the word? Thunderbird! Mad Dog 20-20. Strawberry Hill Forever! Annie Green Springs. Riunite on ice, that's nice. Paul Masson: we will sell no wine before it's these cute little carafe bottles with the pop-off lids. Ripple, the "cheap little 99˘ wine." (Stop me when you've heard enough.) Tickle Pink. Hey, hey, hey, Mateus Rosé. We're talking about wine you drank by the mug here, stuff that wasn't even good enough to be called table wine, wine that makes the box wines of today look like fine vino. And no one talked about the taste.

But when was the last time you heard a drunk called a "wino?" It's a term that has almost dropped out of the every-day lexicon. It's symbolic of how wine's image has completely changed in 30 years. And what happened? Big vintners like Gallo were led out of the Valley of Shamelessness by the examples of small winemakers who focused on the wine, on the inside of the bottle, not the outside. Did they market? You bet. But their marketing was based on the quality and taste of the product, the integrity of the producer. Largely, their marketing focused on how the wine tasted, how it was made, how good it was with food, and how sophisticated the people who enjoyed it were. 

The small winemakers prospered. The big winemakers were smart enough to see success, and more than talented enough to make wine that could match the quality and style of the small producers. The market is now diverse, upscale, and wine is respected. In fact, the campaign was so successful that some vintners are actually trying to back off a bit; they are concerned that people think wine is intimidating, that they don't know enough about it to drink it. It might be a problem, but it's light-years from Thunderbird and 4-liter jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. And the upshot is that we now have a mature wine market: true differentiation, a strong domestic industry based on quality and innovation, a growing, sophisticated, and energized customer base, and deep penetration of wholesalers, stores, and restaurants.

How can beer emulate this progress? First, craft brewers and upper-tier importers should stay the course. Keep selling the beer on its own merits. Imperial IPA or cask-conditioned mild, beers need to be sold on flavor, on heritage, on production values, not goofy names and sex. That's what got us into this mess. Small vintners hung on and won; you can do the same. Don't tire: you always have time to sell the idea of good beer as a beauty of civilization. 

Second, consumers need to speak up. Don't let someone, anyone, talk down beer unchallenged. That's not all beer they're talking about, and they need to know it. Don't be obnoxious, just fit the response to the occasion: drop in that you had stout with chocolate the other night and it was amazing, or that you've got some Trappist ales made by Belgian monks they ought to try, or that you can go see beer being made at your local brewpub.  Hell, write a letter to the editor of your local paper if they run a stupid beer story, and encourage them to do better, and for readers to drink better.

Third, watch your mouth. I've taken the terms "brewski," "suds," and "ice-cold brew" out of my vocabulary. Don't add to the problem! These terms belittle beer. That may seem silly, affected, or dorky, but language is powerful. If you name a thing, you influence it: that's why anti-booze forces call malternatives "alcopops." 

Finally, insist on good beer with your meal. If you go to a restaurant, ask what beers they have, and if they have a tiny selection, ask why, tell them you really wanted a (Belgian, a classic pilsner, a porter)...and then settle for water. Patronize places with better beer lists. Urge them to expand. 

We've got years of this crap to clean up. Herculean allusions aside, it's not going to happen in a day. But won't it be worth it when you walk into your favorite restaurant, ask for a porter with your steak, and the waiter asks you, "Certainly, sir, which one would you prefer?" Won't it be worth it when you never have to hear Sam Adams called a dark beer again? Won't it be worth it when the Big Three realize that they have to switch to a whole new paradigm if they want to stay with the consumers' desires, a shift to smaller batches of the truly distinctive beers they're capable of making but currently disdain? Won't it be worth it when you open your brother-in-law's fridge and finally find a selection of beer almost as good as yours?

You bet it will, but it's a long way off. Grab that shovel and let's get to work.


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 07, 2005