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The Buzz

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

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2005 Buzz

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

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



December, 2005

Look at Me Drink!

I recall reading an article in a drinks business magazine five or six years ago about soda (pop, soft drink, whatever you call it) preferences (don't worry, this isn't another soda Buzz); sorry, but I didn't clip it and index it, so I can't put my finger right on it. But the point of the piece made a big impression on me, an unpleasant one. There was a list of reasons why people drank the brands of soda they drank, garnered from focus groups. This kind of information is marketers' bread and butter, the kind of stuff they use to manipulate us. And they ask oblique questions to get it out of you without you even knowing what they're really asking you. Ugh. Makes me shudder.

The upshot is, they came up with a list of reasons why people drink what they drink, and taste was only fifth on the list. Price was first, and I can understand that; it's a commodity. And there was availability, and graphics -- did the can look cool? -- but right up there in second place was How I look to others when I drink it. Really? Soda? Are these people so pathetic, do they have such a rich fantasy life that they think people are even noticing what soda they're drinking? And that they're making character judgments based on that?

"Hey, Frank: check it out -- that guy's drinking Sprite! Whoaaaa...."

"Oh, Wendy, that bitch, I can't believe she's drinking Diet Dr. Pepper! As if!"

Sure, folks. That's really happening. And you really were an Egyptian princess in a former life. As if, Wendy. People are really stupid about choosing their soda...aren't they?

I remember talking to Rob Widmer, of Widmer Brewing, about how their flagship Hefeweizen started. He and Kurt were brewing an altbier and a wheat beer. "Then Carl Simpson at the Dublin Inn asked us to do a third beer," Rob said. "But we only had two fermenters! I'm not sure whether Kurt or I thought this up, but we figured out that by just not filtering the Weizen, it would make a third beer. We sent it over, and Carl took the time to explain to the customers that the beer was supposed to look cloudy. No one had ever seen a beer that looked like that. He'd get a waitress to take around a tray full of filled weizen glasses, and the orders would pour in."

That's why Widmer was able to stay all draft for so long: their biggest selling beer looked different without a label. People want to be different, people yearn to be different, people even create scripts in their heads that make them different. That's why Harry Potter is so popular with kids. Almost every kid, at some point, believes they're very different, that they're really adopted, that they'll develop some amazing talent. Harry Potter, of course, is different. He's not a Muggle, he's a wizard! And he's got the wand and the lightning bolt scar to prove it. You're different! And you've got the cloudy beer to prove it.

Visible signs. Outward indicators. Displays. I was just talking to a guy in the business today about the aluminum bottle. Now, the aluminum bottle has some real advantages. It is much lighter than glass (so you can get a lot more beer on a truck), it has the opaque light barrier of a can, it's truly resealable, and it's damned near indestructible. As the guy said to me, "If you hit your desk with a full bottle, you might dent it (the bottle), but it won't break or leak." Because of that,, you can use it in stadiums, concert halls, and in the outdoors. And because the bottle is lined with inert resin inside and out, you really don't taste metal if you drink directly from it. 

Pretty cool stuff, and like I said, real advantages. But the real sell-point to the consumer, it seemed, was the mating dance stuff. "The package brings out some extra value to the category, sizzle," he said. "People get excited about it. It appeals to a certain audience; a younger audience seems to have a bigger connection to it. There’s the social aspect to it, being seen with something new and different. There’s something to that, aspirational living through what they’re seen consuming. Maybe they can’t afford a BMW, but they can afford something new."

Ye gods. Are we so shallow? Condemned out of our own mouths, say the marketers; yes, we are. But it gets worse, and this is the part that really makes me wonder about people. There are people out there who drink X (Guinness, Scotch whisky, red wine, what have you) because they think it makes them look different...and they don't even like it. I've talked to people who tell me this, it's real. I've talked to beer geeks who don't really like lambics, but they drink them because other geeks drink lambics. I've seen people drink bad, stale, turned beer and smile and smack their lips because they know they're supposed to enjoy it. 

There's a famous New Yorker cartoon from 1928, drawn by Carl Rose and written by one of my heroes, E.B. White. A mother tells her little girl, "It's broccoli, dear." The little girl replies, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it." We ought to hang that cartoon up in every bar in America... No. Not really. But come on, folks: if you don't like it, why the hell are you drinking it? Say it's spinach!  

I'm proud to say that I've said it's spinach on a number of occasions. I wasn't always right -- the bottle of prime Guinness Extra Stout I poured down a kitchen sink in my junior year of college comes to mind -- but I was always, and am still always honest about it. Just ask Sam Calagione

We do a lot of things for stupid reasons. I can't believe the things I'll do because I don't want to hurt a waitress's feelings. But don't make drink choices based on what other people will think. If everyone else is ordering beer and you feel like a bourbon, have the whiskey. If everyone else is drinking wine and you just don't want wine, have water. Turn the tables: if you knew your friend was ordering wine just because everyone else did, would you be impressed? Or would you take them aside and suggest therapy?

It's such a short, short time we have here. Why not make the most of it? For instance, have a good holiday season.  I'm off for Germany in a couple days, and when I get back we'll talk lager, and rauchbier, and beer history, and what I did with a bunch of other beer writers. You know. The usual. So until I get back, drink what you want to drink. Not what you think someone else wants you to drink.



Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: January 03, 2006