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!
"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?
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
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.
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
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.