St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Detente OR How I learned to stop worrying and love Labatt

This week, I received an email from Labatt. They’re launching three new beers. Usually, they’ll put one beer out at a time and get some marketing behind it as an individual property. In this case, they’ve launched a platoon. There’s Blue Dry, a 6.1% version of Blue with a dry finish. There’s Blue Lime which is Blue with a real lime flavour added. They want me to tell you that it’s only available until September 30th. Finally, there’s Blue 55, which, as you may have guessed, is a version of Blue with 55 calories.

Now, It’s fairly obvious to anyone who has been following Canadian macro brewing in even a cursory way, that we’ve reached a state in the industry where MolsonCoors and AB-InBev are pretty much unwilling to let each other take a unique step forward. For two of those beers, it’s pretty clear that Labatt is shoring up their lineup to compete with Molson. Blue 55 is clearly a response to Molson Canadian 67. Blue Lime is pretty clearly a response to Molson Canadian 67 Sublime. I’m sure that Blue Dry is an answer to something, although I’m not sure what. Maybe Coldshots.

I’ve been trying to find something to compare this to, and the only thing I could think of is nuclear detente. Each company seems to be unwilling to allow the other an edge. Development of products is frequently retaliatory, and sometimes the launches are so close together that you realize there must be some corporate espionage going on.

Look at the launches, which occurred within a month of each other, of Rickard’s Blonde and Keith’s Ambrosia Blonde. Some detractors will point out that Rickard’s is a lager and Keith’s is an ale. It seems like a major detail, but in truth what you’ve got is two huge multinational companies with faux-craft subsidiaries launching similarly named products into the same market within four weeks of each other.

The details are meaningless beyond that point for the sake of my argument. I am not, as you will notice, pointing out anything about the quality of the beverages, which for all I know might be quite high.

I suppose that the train of thought must be “We cannot afford a trend gap. If we allow the other company to have a brand that we don’t have, they will develop an edge on us in the market. Their German-trained brewers might be better than our German-trained brewers.” In some ways, it’s a miracle that neither company has launched a dog into space for publicity.

Judging by that set of behaviour, it follows logically that they actually believe that a single brand from the other company making it big with the public could be the turning point that will lead to decreased market share, decreased revenue and eventual collapse.

I disagree. The problem with an arms race is that you’re in an arms race. The structure of the problem is the real issue. Think for a moment about the amount of money that the US and the USSR sank into their respective militaries and think about the cost of developing 7500 megatons of nuclear weaponry. You’ve got to keep it somewhere, after all. There’s so much funding invested in R&D and prolonging the stalemate that it eventually becomes untenable. Not only that, but you’re eventually committed to upkeep.

Between them, Molson and Labatt have enough brands to get us all really drunk several times over. And they’re locked in a stalemate because they seem to think that the best way to succeed is to thwart the movements of the opposition. The problem is that the stalemate is untenable as a corporate strategy for the reason that these are consumer products and not impersonal weapons.

Bob from Bala, Ontario has no preference about nuclear weapons other than that they not go off anywhere near Bala, Ontario. You can’t market various kinds of warheads as being “explodier” than others. There’s no ratenuke.com, although there may be a nukeadvocate.com run by either neo-cons or alternative energy lobbyists.

Bob might have a preference for a kind of beer, though. Let’s say that Bob started drinking Labatt Wildcat in 1994 or whenever it came out. He’s been drinking it for 17 years and it’s now the only thing that Bob will drink, since Bob’s a creature of habit who mows the lawn Friday afternoon and goes to church on Sunday and never puts the lid back on the toothpaste.

If Labatt were to discontinue Wildcat, they might really piss off Bob. And the same goes for all the other people out there like Bob who enjoy that beer. The really bad part is that for each company there is a similar base of customers for each brand. So, while each company can continue to increase the number of beers that they offer, they can’t really remove any without annoying the consumer base. This may go some way to explaining why we still have ice beers 15 years later. New brands don’t actually bring in new customers. They spread out the customer base that already exists. There are not magically more people just because you’ve got a marketing campaign.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve actually done the research. Here’s a spreadsheet including many of the brands that each company has in The Beer Store. I’ve lined each product from each company up with what I feel is the opposite brand from the other company. You may not agree with some of them, but part of my decision making process in this case was to look at price structure. I have listed the prices for 12 bottles and 24 bottles where applicable. I have left out the European Imports that each company represents. I think you’ll be astonished by how little wiggle room there is between companies.

Here’s the thing, though, and it is pretty obvious. Molson’s Six Pints division under Creemore is a quanitity that doesnt exist at Labatt, and it’s Molson’s best chance at gaining an insurmountable advantage. If Labatt doesn’t acquire some craft brands in a desperate bid for Perestroika, the detente will be over within a matter of years. It will not have much immediate effect on the craft beer market, since the brands chosen will be unobjectionable to the majority of consumers and therefore of little interest to craft beer drinkers.

I hope that they acquire some craft properties. The detente is great for craft brewers. While Molson and Labatt fight over turf that no one really wants (55 calorie, 2.3% “beer” vs 67 calorie, 3.0% “beer”) we get to run amok with innovation and educate people who are starting to realize that flavour might be more important than advertising. It would be cynical to suggest that it’s important that Labatt holds a market share similar to that which Molson holds for as long as possible so that the overall market share of both companies can be chipped away at by the craft industry. It would also be pretty objectively accurate.

Something to ponder, anyway.

Neustadt Springs Brewery & The U.S. Open Beer Championship

You can learn a lot from awards given out at large beer festivals. You’re not going to learn who the best in the world is. You’re not going to learn who the best brewer is or even what the best light lager is. There’s no true objectivity for the simple reason that the sample doesn’t include ALL BEER. Think of each beer festival and judging as an annual sample of some beers. Some festivals are more legitimate than others because of the size of the sample or because of historical precedent. Scale has a lot to do with this kind of thing.

That’s pretty obvious; Nose on your face obvious. It’s like ugly on an ape, or a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake. It’s an indicator of quality, but it’s one version of an objective quality based on what there was that day.

What you CAN learn from medals given out at beer festivals is also important. You can learn who’s willing to stand behind their product.

If you’re a small brewery, awards judging and festivals mean that you’ve got to plan ahead. You’ve got to get your beer ready for the judging, sometimes months in advance depending on what batch size and strength and style of beer you’re working with. You’ve got to get the beer to them, which is difficult in Canada, if only for the reason that shipping beer is difficult. It has to get there in one piece and a fragile label on a small package is an indicator to UPS that they should work up an impromptu game of warehouse softball.

The other thing that’s massively important is self awareness. You’ve got to be honest enough with yourself to know whether your beer stands a chance of competing. In some cases consideration for an award comes with a fee. You’ve got to pay to enter the judging, so you’ve got to be sure that you’re not just throwing your money away. You have to be able to independently reach the conclusion that your beer might win, and you have to do it without self deception.

So: this requires planning and confidence. Especially, since you’re going to be going up against beers that other people have the same amount of confidence in. You also have to steel yourself against the possibility of disappointment. There’s nothing worse than entering six categories and winning nothing. In the end it’s all in the judges’ hands.

So, a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in the Twisted Kilt and Andy Stimpson called me from the Neustadt Springs Brewery, I was surprised to hear that he had entered his beers into the U.S. Open Beer Championship. Neustadt might as well, at least from the perspective of someone who thinks of anything west of say, Dufferin, as being the boonies, be on Mars. It’s about halfway between Goderich and Collingwood.

It’s for this reason that I’ve never talked about Neustadt Springs. We get their 10W30 in cans, and sometimes we get their Double Fuggled on cask. It’s solid stuff, generally speaking. I’ve never had anything they made that I disliked. I think that they probably make the best mild bitter in Ontario, but I’m reserving judgement on that until I try it on cask.

Now, you don’t call a blogger unless you’re looking to sell something or share some impressive news, and Andy was in the latter camp. Four medals in the U.S. Open Beer Championship. They took eighth place overall, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the people above them in the ratings are sort of world class. Deschutes, Cigar City, Grand Teton, Sam Adams, New Belgium and Full Sail. Those are not names I would have expected to see anywhere near Neustadt Springs. Go ebay the prices on some of their bottles. 2 Deschutes Abyss will run you 60 bucks. You’d have to sell a kidney to afford some of the Cigar City stuff.

So Andy told me about the beers that he entered. Unsurprisingly, his bitter took gold. I was surprised to hear that their lager did as well, mostly for the reason that I don’t think I knew they made one. The 10W30 took silver as did a fruit beer: The Sour Kraut.

Most impressive to me, was that despite this incredible outcome, Andy spent most of the phone call pointing out that it was really a win for Ontario. Every Ontario brewery who entered this year won an award. Cameron’s took a bronze in the Cream Ale category. Grand River won the Mild Ale category outright (no surprise there). Denison’s took a silver in German Wheat. Amsterdam’s Oranje Weiss took the Belgian Witbier category. Niagara College took three separate medals including one in Barley Wine and one in Old Ale.

Let me talk briefly about what I think is the most improbable thing to come out of this: Amsterdam’s Tempest took bronze in the Imperial Stout category, which is always a hotly contested one.. They ranked just behind Cigar City (whose aforementioned aftermarket price range means that you’ll be waking up in a bathtub full of ice) and Deschutes. This means that Amsterdam’s first attempt at an Imperial Stout is basically a gosh-darn bona-fide miracle. Iain McOustra is some kind of straight up idiot savant and we should all bow down before his massive, massive cranium. Apparently, his only goal in life is to dance merrily on your tastebuds. My apologies to anyone who just pictured Iain in a tutu.

If you haven’t bought any, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for that one. I saw people criticizing the labelling, but my feeling is that those people should shut up about the labelling and enjoy the incredibly good stuff inside the bottle.

That said, remember the caveat from earlier? How awards are really only important based on the strength of the competition? It remains true. In this case, Neustadt Springs did incredibly well against some very stiff competition. I’m still a little amazed that I haven’t tried their lager, but I’m sure that I will in time. Mostly, I’m impressed with Andy himself, who is modest enough to have downplayed his role in the championship in favour of pointing out the merits of the other Ontario breweries involved. I’ve learned that he’s not only a very talented brewer who is willing to send his product all the way to Atlanta just to compete, he’s also quite modest enough to let others shine as well.

Bloody well done, sir.

Filling in the Blanks for Ontario Craft Beer Week 2011

You may have noticed that the old bloggity blog has lain fallow these two weeks. There’s a good reason for that. June was busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest, and my plan of trying to cover events every day during Ontario Craft Beer Week was not quite as easy as it seemed at the outset. I mean, if anything tells you how feasible the craft beer movement has become in the province, it’s the fact that OCB week organically grew into a ten day beer festival. I suspect at this point that if there were just an organizing website that would list events, you could probably continue indefinitely. Sure all the brewers would pass out from lack of sleep on day 23, but that’s a small price to pay for success.

What this means is that I’ve got two weeks of blogging to catch up on, and I figure that rather than scrapping the whole thing in order to get up to speed on current events, I’ll condense days six and seven of Ontario Craft Beer Week into a single post.

Let me preface these two posts by saying that Garrett Oliver was in town for those two days. Originally I was going to write a little bit about that, but there was no way that I could do it that wouldn’t have come off as fan-boy boot-licking toad-eating; just the worst kind of hero worship. It’s probably warranted, but my impression is that if there was ever a dude who was secure enough to not need that kind of praise, it’s Garrett Oliver.

I will therefore limit myself to the following paragraph, which will sound like a Bill Brasky story:

We’re supremely lucky to have that guy as an ambassador for craft beer. He’s poised, gracious, funny, intelligent and a snappy dresser. I got to tour the beer store with him as his rep explained the situation in Ontario. Garrett had everything figured out in about four minutes, right down to deducing the fact that with a burgeoning craft beer movement, there had to be some kind of online backlash (all I could add was that we were working on it). I have not seen a lot of people able to pull off a blue gingham/tattersall shirt, especially amongst the beer community in Ontario where a bowling shirt is considered overdoing it. The man wore cufflinks to a cooking demo and managed not to dirty his French cuffs. In short, it’s pointless to talk about being impressed by him because if that’s not your default reaction, you’re deranged.

Day Six: Bar Volo House Ales Takeover

This event was really interesting for me, because I was there for the first brew day Bar Volo had: Caustic Commencement Saison. I still have the sticker from that brew on my banjo case. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come over the course of a year. While it took a while for the nanobrewery to get off the ground, they’re now producing beer at a really good clip. Some of them are pretty darn good, while some of them miss the mark. I’ve tried a lot of the beers there over the last year, because for a while they were mostly getting broken out for special events. I don’t think that there’s been anything world shaking to come out of the House Ales project yet, but that’s not really the point.

It’s early days yet, and the whole thing is kind of a journey. To me, the best part of the House Ales project is that it functions as a kind of crossroads for brewing in Ontario. Ralph Morana doesn’t often get credit for this, but all you have to do is look at the way the community connects around Bar Volo because of the often collaborative nature of the beers on offer. During any given week you’ll have Bim from Dieu Du Ciel or Fred from Charlevoix in there, brewing up a storm. He’s worked with Iain and Bartle from Amsterdam, Lackey from Great Lakes. Not to mention Flying Monkeys, Biergotter and St. Andre. Plus, Jon Hodd, who works there, is turning into a force to be reckoned with.

Because most of the brews are envelope pushers (“Black Saison” said Garrett. “Is that a thing?”), you end up with brewers going in to try them. It results in increased communication throughout breweries in Canada. That’s a pretty useful function, if I’m honest. Volo used to be my local, what with cheap pints on Mondays and a fantastic group of regulars. These days I mostly get there for events, which is a shame since you never know what’s going to be available from one day to the next.

The only downside is that with the ambitious new direction, the crowd in there has changed fairly significantly. It’s much younger. I mean, how often do you see Stefan from Dieu Du Ciel spin a DJ set? The prices have gone up somewhat. I feel like I’m verging into “get off my lawn, you darn kids” territory if I complain about those things, so I’ll just suggest this: Volo has never been static. It started as an Italian restaurant nearly 30 years ago. No one could have predicted that it would become a craft beer place, let alone one of the best in the world. The continued innovation is not trading off the old atmosphere or ambiance. Continued innovation is a hallmark of the place, and it’s no surprise that it has begun communicating that progress across the Ontario brewing scene both through collaboration and by acting as a nexus for the industry.

Day Seven: Session 99

I’m going with the extreme short form here, since this is turning into a novel.

The organizers of the Session festival learned from last year. They learned that the festival needs to be in an accessible location. They learned that the location they choose needs to have an open layout. They learned that rioting in the streets will prevent people from drinking beer, which seems counterintuitive when you think about Vancouver.

Jed did a heck of a job putting together something that felt more like a party than most festivals do. Cooking demos, easily available food, a cigar lounge, and enough space to stretch out in all helped with this atmosphere. I don’t know if the venue ever reached capacity. I was worried initially, since it looked pretty empty two hours after the kick off, but it picked up significantly and I think that everyone enjoyed themselves.

The main stage was a nice touch. A little bit of spectacle is good at a beer festival, since it tends to keep people from having nothing to do but drink. After a couple of hours of milling around sampling things, that can lead to a number of problems. On the other hand, people tend to behave themselves if you’ve got a circus strongman kicking around. The thought process is “Oh hey. That dude just bent that rebar into a heart with his teeth. Maybe I should just chill out over in the corner for a while.”

I was surprised to see that Spearhead won best brewery. I think it’s a triumph of their marketing rather than their beer, but I can’t fault them for that. It’s a part of the game that they excel at. I know people who think that they shouldn’t have won since they’re contracting out of Cool brewery, and therefore are not actually a brewery. I have to point out that it was a publicly determined vote, and that the public doesn’t care about that stuff. The semantics of the thing are only crucially important to industry people. Besides, you can’t enforce authenticity in a free market, neither can you argue from the standpoint that you should be able to without being disingenuous.

Good for them, says I, for not downplaying the role of marketing in their business plan. It worked for The Spice Girls. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard to argue with a gold record.