If you’ll recall, I wrote a column early in January about the Hop Mason beer that Keith’s are brewing for pubs in the Prime chain across Canada. The conclusion that I came to was that it was objectively good and that the specs for the beer put it squarely in the realm of English IPA. In addition to this it bore some of the hallmarks of a beer produced by a very large company. It was comparatively accessible and it was aggressively filtered resulting in a much clearer beer than you’d usually see in a craft IPA. It wasn’t exactly a world beater, but it could be said objectively to be a good beer.
On Thursday last week, I received a package from Keith’s with the beers from their new Hop Series. They’re not really IPAs. My understanding is that the BU’s come in way under specification for even an English style.
Here’s the really interesting part: They’re not being marketed as IPAs. Not really.
Rather than going for overwhelming bitterness, they’ve opted to showcase the flavour and aroma of a single hop in each Iteration of the Hop Series. The first two are Hallertauer and Cascade, which would be pretty approachable for the drinkers that they’re trying to reach. Rather than going for bittering, they’ve opted to dry hop the beers pretty aggressively. You get aroma without the sting of bitterness. Furthermore, it’s an all malt product.
You’ll read a lot of reviews if you follow beer blogs where the subject is approached with the intent of suggesting to you that the author is developing a begrudging respect for the product. I’m not going to bother with the pretense. The Keith’s Hop Series beers were pretty good. If offered one, I would not turn it down.
The reason I’m not bothering with the pretense (aside from the fact I knew they were going to do this two months ago) is that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that large brewers can make flavourful beers if they want to. It’s just that they’ve never seemed to want to before, or at the very least, haven’t quite understood how to approach the problem.
It’s unusual that two separate topics flow into each other this well. You’ll remember my conclusion about Discount Beer February: That in 1993, President’s Choice getting 3% of the beer market in Ontario was a large enough threshold to force large brewers to play their game and that this situation might be relevant to Craft Beer in Ontario 20 years later, given that Craft has about 5-6% of the market depending on who you include.
Usually it takes months for the other shoe to drop.
The thing about the Alexander Keith’s Hop Series is that it’s not simply a beer release. This is going to be an event. There’s going to be mobile sampling across the country through April and early May. They’re actually interested in doing education on the product and on how hops work in beer. They’re taking it to the streets.
Shed your cynicism about large brewers for a moment and look at what just happened. Forget that it’s Keith’s. If I were to exclude the company name and say to you that a brewery with a budget for marketing and education were making a push to introduce the public to single hop beers as an attempt to make flavour the focus of their product, what would you say?
The problem, for Keith’s at least, is that there are likely unforeseen consequences. I suspect that most of your dyed in the wool craft beer drinkers, if they’re reasonable, will admit that the Hop Series beers are pretty good. I don’t believe for a second that they’ll purchase them in quantity. This means that the success of the Hop Series beers depends on drinkers from other segments of the market. I’m talking generally about people who drink stuff like regular Keith’s or Canadian or Budweiser.
If you’re a Keith’s drinker and you see a new product with the Keith’s logo on it, you’ll probably give it a shot. If the marketing convinces you that the flavour that you’re now enjoying is hops and the educational aspect is enough to display to you that there is a causal effect between ingredients and flavour, what is preventing you, the average Keith’s drinker, from making the small leap to drinking more hoppy beer on a regular basis?
Nothing. That’s what.
If it goes the way I think it’s going to go, this is going to lead to a steady trickle of beer drinkers discovering and purchasing craft products instead of big name beers. I can see no reason that the Hop Series won’t be as successful for AB InBev in Ontario as Creemore and Granville have been for Molson. Hop City is doing the same for Moosehead. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller wants out of their distribution contract in Ontario so that they can push their Leinenkugel stuff.
So, to sum up: Large brewers are now spending very large amounts of money on making all-malt beers and ensuring through education that they are conceptually accessible to the public. I have to suppose that they’re doing this to take advantage of the fastest growing segment of the Canadian beer market. They know going in, if they’ve done their research, that there is not a huge amount of brand loyalty in the craft market segment. People don’t identify as a Cameron’s drinker or as a Muskoka drinker. They identify as Craft Beer drinkers (an interesting side effect of which is that small brewery imports are now defacto “craft beer”).
They are actually converting their customers to craft beer drinkers. I can’t even pretend to know what the endgame is here. I will make a prediction though: One of the results of this activity is that the craft beer segment is going to expand faster this year than we’ve ever seen before in Ontario.