It’s a new season! The little lame balloon man whistles far and wee! Those little blue flowers whose name I always forget are only a couple of weeks away (a quick google tells me they’re probably Scylla). It’s supposed to hit 60 this afternoon, and if the price we have to pay for that is a pretty significant thunderstorm, then who really cares?
Not unsurprisingly, business is picking up in the craft beer world as well. Almost immediately on the heels of the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, interesting things started happening.
I didn’t get to the CBC this year, but I am given to understand that it is basically a collection of serious minded individuals coming together to forge relationships and share information. This is done by drinking enough Pliny the Elder to give a Rhinoceros cirrhosis. All throughout the week, pictures would get thrown up on facebook. Steve from Beau’s drinking everything that Russian River had on tap! Mike Lackey from Great Lakes standing idly outside various pubs and breweries! A whole contingent of Canadians singing the national anthem in some atrium or other!
Since then we’ve had the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch. I’ve written about that a little bit in the sun.
It’s also shaping up to be an interesting week in Toronto. The Monk’s Table is putting on a series of events for Tartan day, and that should be interesting. Will it change my mind on Innis and Gunn? Probably not, but maybe the IPA will be different.
Wednesday is going to be the Brewer’s Plate, and this will be my first time attending that event. I’m looking forward to it. Good food prepared by local chefs, paired with beer. That’s enough reason for anyone to want to go there. Tickets are $125.00, which seems a little steep, but it’s for charity, so… I dunno. Probably value for money if you’re into local fruit picking.
That’s not what I want to talk about today, though.
Today I want to talk about Flying Monkeys.
One of the things that has impressed me about Flying Monkeys is the fact that their brewmaster displays a certain amount of savvy when it comes to product development and interacting with the community in general. He’s got an account on Bartowel.com and he’s not afraid to interact with the beer nerds. I suspect that a lot of people don’t want to do that for the reason that the beer nerds can be a contentious lot and they’re as likely to grumble about minutiae as they are to accept a beer out of hand. I think that a lot of this has to do with the way that a beer is sold to them.
Peter Chiodo, at some point, hit upon the very clever idea that they can be catered to. He used the Bartowelers as a product development panel for his Smashbomb IPA which went through several revisions over the course of the summer and fall of last year. It’s a beer that’s got a flavour profile well outside of mainstream acceptability.
I got my dad to try it the other week when we were at Highway 61 on Bayview. “Smells like cat pee,” he said. “Tastes like I’m sucking on a pine forest.” Those are both legitimate tasting notes for the beer, which I understand uses a lot of Citra hops (at least it did last summer.) I explained that it was an acquired taste, while he ordered a Muskoka Dark.
One of the interesting dynamics of an internet forum is that dissenting views are typically ridiculed. At this point, if you were to go on Bartowel and post a less than glowing review of Smashbomb, you’d start a flamewar the likes of which haven’t been seen since the allied bombing of Dresden. Savvy market development there. It allows the beer nerds a certain feeling of ownership for the product that they have helped to hone.
Speaking of offensive jokes about armament, Smashbomb failed to make it past the LCBO’s social responsibility panel. One can only guess what the exact reason might have been for this. Maybe it was the mushroom cloud on the packaging. Maybe the warlike nature of the name SMASHBOMB ATOMIC IPA is the kind of thing that needs to be censored lest it poison our water, privatize our health care and crash our planes in the Libyan No Fly Zone. Maybe they simply worried that the garish colour palette and design features would give people seizures.
The LCBO social responsibility panel is a law unto itself. It’s understandable. They’re a large provincial moneymaker and they don’t want to get sued. I can dig it.
So the Smashbomb IPA will be going into certain select beer stores, and in the meantime Flying Monkeys have been developing some other products. I hear there’s a Barley Wine that weighs in around 18% and might take your face clean off.
But I’ve been thinking.
If you were a brewer looking to make a point about the LCBO social responsibility panel, this would not be a bad way to go about it. Create an elite cadre of online forum members who feel as though it’s THEIR beer. They’ll almost certainly write letters and put some pressure on the LCBO to pass the thing. Of course, the LCBO isn’t going to backpedal on a decision like that.
The thing is that this was almost certain to be their decision, right from the outset. If Flying Monkeys just wanted to sell some beer, they probably would have named the beer something else at the beginning, or they could have run it up the flagpole with the LCBO at some point in the development process to see whether it could be sold there. There could have been caution. They could have tested the waters.
The controversy actually garnered a small amount of legitimate media coverage this morning on CFRB. That’s some free press for a brewery that doesn’t have a huge advertising budget. I’m wondering whether this is a continuation of the savvy that Peter Chiodo displayed with the product’s development. I wouldn’t put it past him. It would set Flying Monkeys up with a sort of outlaw brewing image, which is the kind of thing that could catch on in Ontario at this point.
If he’s picking a fight, it’s an obscure fight to pick, especially with what is probably a relatively niche product. Ultimately, the success or failure of Smashbomb IPA depends on how much people want their beer to smell like cat pee. I think that there’s a rabid inbuilt market for the beer in the beer nerd community. Maybe distributing through the beer store is not as big a gamble as it seems in this case.
We shall see.
Edit: and half an hour later he’s on CBC One talking about how the packaging is intentionally edgy.