Big Bottles Equals Wine?

duval-bottle
This is one of those “what the fuck” moments when I absolutely loathe wine’s status as the owner of all things sophisticated and fine, which also assumes, in the great words of Mike Myers (substituting “wine” for “Scottish”) “if ain’t wine, it’s crap.” The other assumption is that everything else is trying to be like wine, that anything trying to be a well made, good product on its own has to be aspiring to be like wine, it can’t just want to be good for its own reasons. This has been incredibly frustrating and insulting, as the status and quality of beer has been steadily improving in the United States for several decades. Despite the many years this has been so, it seems to me that many wine and spirits writers have essentially put their heads in the sand and every now and then will pop up and see that things have changed, and then decide they’re the ones who first noticed it.

Case in point is an article in the New York Times by a Clay Risen, who is, as far as I can tell, primarily a spirits writer who writes about that at Mash Notes and also writes about other things at the Atlantic. In the Times’ “Wine & Dining” section (another pet peeve of mine; why can’t it be “drinks & dining?”) he writes about Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause a Stir. Here’s the stir to which he’s referring, as he begins.

Time was, beer came in one size: whether bottle or can, the stuff inside measured a reliable 12 ounces. But walk into a craft-beer store these days and you’ll see shelf after shelf taken over by giants: 22-ounce “bombers,” 750-milliliter wine bottles, even three-liter jeroboams.

I’m not sure what time exactly he’s referring to, but a twelve ounce “standard” size for beer is as mythical as the idyllic America conservatives refer back to in telling us what’s wrong with the world today. While it’s true that the diversity in sizes was reduced after Prohibition, that’s largely because many states adopted post-prohibition laws that included only sizes many of the big brewers made, in part because those businesses helped write the laws. Florida’s an ideal example, where state law after Prohibition mandated only specific package sizes were legal. But even so, larger, and smaller, sizes have always been with us. And I also don’t know what he means when he says that craft-beer shelves “these days” have larger 22 oz. bottles, etc. The 22 oz. bottle has been a big part of craft beer for literally decades, and many breweries started out with just that size because it was cheaper, and didn’t require six-pack carriers.

Anchor Brewing, Belgian breweries, and many others have been using magnum bottles, and other large format bottles also for decades. I have Anchor Christmas magnums from the early 1990s and I’m confident they were using the size well before that.

Anchor-Christmas_2010_magnum

So, okay, he seems to be taking the position that this is something he just noticed, therefore it’s new. Annoying, but somewhat benign; ignorance, not malice. But here’s where he loses me.

The trend toward large bottles is part of what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer, the push by many brewers to make their product as respectable to pair with braised short ribs as is a nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and at a price to match.

Frankly, meat dishes like braised short ribs naturally pair much better with beer than wine so really it’s wine that should have to fight for this respectability, but the author just takes it for granted that wine must be the better choice for a food pairing. What arrogance. Ribs with beer is already a respectable pairing, it’s only through willful ignorance that someone would not realize that.

But apart from the author, who are these people calling it the”‘wine-ification’ of beer?” Who decided this was a “trend?” I sure wish they’d cut it out. It’s wrong. It’s insulting. And most of all, it isn’t really true. Sure, brewers and people who love beer would be very pleased if good beer got the respect that it deserves, but they don’t think of it as the new wine, or any other annoying label the mainstream media loves to put on it. Beer can be good, even great, on its own terms without turning into wine. Just because some beer is put into a different size bottle doesn’t mean they’re trying to make it like wine. Look at beer bottles from 100 or more years ago. They were large, they had a crown and cork, and nobody confused them with wine.

Below, for example, is a bottle of Budweiser in an ad in the Ladies Home Journal from 1904. Notice anything? It’s a big bottle, and it has a cage and cork. I guess this big bottle trend of trying to make beer like wine really has been going on a long time.

1904Budweiser

And here’s one for Rainier beer in Seattle, from 1900. And what have we here? A big bottle, wrapped in foil at the crown.

rainier_beer_ad_1900

As part of the support for his theory, Risen cites the following. “Last year, only about 3.5 percent of craft beer was sold in 22-ounce bottles, the most common large-format size, according to the market research firm SymphonyIRI.” Maybe he doesn’t realize this, but Symphony IRI data is primarily collected from grocery and big box stores, it is not representative of the market as a whole. And those outlets as a general rule, stock less odd-size bottles because their shelves are not set up for packages of varying sizes. Their shelves are at their most efficient when they stick to the same sizes.

So while nobody that I know has reliable statistics for the breakdown in all beer packages sold in the market, I can say with confidence that grocery sales do not reflect them. 22 oz., and other sizes are, and have been, selling for quite some time. When I was the beer buyer at BevMo, we specialized in beer much more than the average grocery store and that was reflected in the mix of package sizes we carried, too.

The story goes on to stir the pot of controversy over people’s concerns about big bottles. And while I’m sure he can find plenty of people willing to complain, it’s still just anecdotal evidence that ultimately doesn’t mean that much. Oh, this guy over here doesn’t like a big bottle. So what? Most of the more expensive, limited beers are the ones in big bottles so they’re not exactly made to be a mass marketed product. They’re meant for people who like them, can appreciate them, and who want them. The idea that somebody could be “uncomfortable with the notion of drinking beer like wine” seems utterly ridiculous. I mean, who’s saying that? What does drinking it “like wine” even mean. Does it mean not out of the bottle? Does it mean in something other than a pint glass? Does it mean sharing it, which he suggests, though that assertion seems very odd to me.

Then there’s a quote from Ben Granger, from Bierkraft (which I’ve heard very good things about, but have not visited) that “[a]s soon as you say you want to be more like wine, the battle is lost. I don’t think beer and beer culture need to be more like wine. I think they need to keep being themselves.” But who’s saying we’re trying to make our beer more like wine? With all due to respect to Granger, all of the people who I know who love great beer don’t think that big bottles, sharing or drinking out of a nice glass means we’re treating beer like wine. And I live in the heart of wine country. Treating beer with respect is just that. There’s no analogies necessary. Drinking beer out of the proper glass, and opening a big bottle to share with friends is exactly my favorite way to enjoy a beer. Until this mess of an article, it never occurred to me that what I was doing might be winey. You know why? Because it’s not, for chrissakes.

But this statement might be what bothers me the most: “Ultimately, traditionalists say that what irks them the most about the big bottles is that they send the signal that beer is trying to be something that it’s not: that it needs to be more like wine or scotch to win over elite consumers.” No it fucking doesn’t say that at all. If that’s the message you’re receiving, you made that up, all by yourself. Wine does not have a monopoly on glassware, bottle sizes or anything else. Beer can, and should, be put into whatever size package the brewer thinks best suits the product inside.

Who exactly are these “traditionalists?” And what does that mean? Traditional in what sense? Twelve ounce bottles became more common after prohibition because they fit nicely in the refrigerator. They weren’t even always in six-packs, and brewers tried other sizes, too. But my understanding is that six could be easily carried by most people, and especially women, who back then did the majority of the household shopping. As breweries became larger and more national, buying glass in bulk was also cheaper, and standardizing their own operations saved them money, but they weren’t creating a “tradition.” It was a business decision, pure and simple.

Now I like wine just fine. I live in Sonoma County, where there’s plenty of great wine all around me. If somebody hands me a glass, I happily accept it, drink it, and even sometimes enjoy it. I am a cross-drinker. But there’s nothing inherently exclusive to wine in the way it’s packaged, consumed or enjoyed. And saying so just pits the two against one another in a way that distorts reality and does neither side any good. It’s just unnecessary. This manufactured issue may sell papers or get click-throughs online, but otherwise should have no part in the way we perceive the status of different alcoholic drinks.

But one thing I have noticed, though I freely admit this is anecdotal, too. This argument is always made by the wine or spirits side, never by the beer world. Most beer people are content letting beer be beer, in whatever form it wants, but wine seems to always accuse beer of putting on airs whenever it dares to be more than lightly-flavored malt swill served out of buckets from tailgates outside of football games. “Big bottle? You must be trying to be like wine?” What utter fucking nonsense. Now hand me that Jeroboam of Russian River, I’ve worked up a powerful thirst.

UPDATE March 6: Garrett Oliver today posted his comments on Risen’s folly on the Times’ website, which I’ve copied below.

I must say that I take genuine exception to yesterday’s article on high-end beer in large bottles. The article appears to be pushing a point of view that is patently at odds with reality, and the piece is so full of holes and half-truths as to be essentially false. Let’s have a look:

(a) Our customers enjoy these beers enough that we have a hard time keeping up, as does every other good craft brewery we know.

(b) The writer conflates the 750 ml bottle with the 22 oz. “bomber” bottle, which is akin to conflating punk rock with heavy metal because they’re both loud and aggressive. That’s embarrassing.

(c) Beer cannot be “wine-ified” for two reasons. The first is that beer, like wine, has always been both “high” and “low”. The old American term for an alcoholic was “wino”, and there’s a reason for that. European museums are full of ornate gold and silver beer vessels and beer has featured heavily on the tables of royal and aristocratic households for more than 500 years. And every small French, Italian or Spanish town has a cantina where bottles of wine can be filled for a euro or two.

Also, ninety percent of the American wine market is bag-in-box or jug wine. Ninety percent! People drink both wine and beer at backyard barbecues and at four-star restaurants. And if the bottle is large and the beer tasty, all the better – we have friends and family to share it with.

Cheers,

Garrett Oliver
Brewmaster, The Brooklyn Brewery
Editor-in-Chief, “The Oxford Companion to Beer”

Well said, Garrett.

Comments

  1. Mrs. J says

    “Unlike wine, a beer is nearly impossible to recork.” What the heck is he talking about? Maybe you can’t “recork” a beer with the sort of fathead corks commonly used in beer bottles, but you can’t recork a bottle of champagne either. But you can certainly recork a beer bottle with the exact same sort of bottle stopper that you can pick up in any wine shop. I do just that with almost every single 22-oz bottle that I open and don’t want to finish that night.

    Baffling article overall. I think this is the first I’ve heard of *craft beer fans* having an issue with 22s. To the contrary, my perception was that real craft beer fans appreciated the greater variety of beer made available through the use of larger bottles which allow breweries to offer more experimental beers more cheaply, on an ounce for ounce basis. But what do I know? I’m just some woman who’s spent almost 2 decades hanging out with brewers, craft beer distributors, craft beer retailers, craft beer writers and craft beer enthusiasts. I should probably take the word of some guy who writes about spirits when it comes to how my “tribe” feels about beer.

  2. Mrs. J says

    This article reminds me a little of the term “mansplaining” used in feminist circles when a man condescendingly “explains” something to a woman who actually knows more about the subject than the man does. Only in this case it’s “winesplaining.” The writer keeps talking about “craft beer enthusiasts” having issues with 22s, but I’m not certain that the people he’s talking about aren’t just people who are interested in craft beer, but don’t know much about it yet.

  3. Sean O'Connor says

    It is convenient of the writer to not mention the long history of wine being sold in jugs. As if the 750ML format is the only packaging method for wine. Perhaps he should hammer craft breweries for serving beer in growlers as well. What will he say when breweries start packaging their wares in a box?

  4. says

    Excellent rant, Jay, correct in every aspect. The “reputed quart”, 25 (US) fluid ounces, almost exactly 750ml, was a common beer bottle size in the 19th century, and British brewers continued to sell beer in quarts well into the second half of the 20th century, without anyone telling them they were trying to make it like wine.

    • Matt Friefeld says

      Nice to see Martyn weighing in on this issue. I suggest you look at the copious comments that were posted in the Times in response to the article.
      Maybe The Times could hire someone as well-informed as Mr. Cornell to write actual journalism about beer and ale rather than a hack like Clay Risen.

  5. Shilpi H says

    great rant Jay.

    Garrett Oliver chimed in with a great and timely response to the article on the nytimes.com page itself, worth reading.

  6. Lstaff says

    Think your missing the point of the article by focusing on minor details through beer geek glasses. There is a rising tide of dissatisfaction with large bottle formats and the lack of value that they give. Only a small % of craft drinkers are beer geeks who desire to drink new, rare, limited, experimental, cloying, high abv, flavor stupid beers every time they reach for another and are willing to pay a premium to do so. yet they seem to represent the majority of brand choices in liquor stores where craft beer is sold -at least in my market anyway. This is causing reasonably priced, well crafted balanced and drinkable beers bought 6, 12, 24 at a time harder to find

    • says

      Nope, not missing that at all. What you’re referring to as “minor details” are in fact simply wrong facts or a poor interpretations of information, and they’re hardly minor. I’m not sure what you could possibly mean about a “rising tide of dissatisfaction” when every brewery I know making large format bottles is selling everything they can make. Even you admit that certain people “are willing to pay a premium” for these beers, so unless you’re a very bad business person, you’ll keep making the product that people are buying. You’re a financial systems manager, so you should understand it just makes economic sense to get a higher ring at the cash register. If they weren’t selling, then maybe your argument would hold water, but even then large format bottles are usually a better value, even though they may be more expensive up front. Generally speaking, the packaging with beer, like most consumer goods frankly, is the most expensive part of the cost of goods, and large format bottles require less packaging, making their contents oftentimes a better value. That aside, many of the big bottles are more expensive because they’re more limited and may have taken more time, more ingredients and more effort to make. If you don’t want to buy them, there’s a simple solution: don’t.

      I think you may be mistaken about big bottles representing the “majority of brand choices in liquor stores where craft beer is sold” given that the majority of all craft beer sold is the 12-oz. bottle by a wide margin. The specialty beers in larger format packages represent a fraction of craft beer sold, and given that beer is a volume business, no brewer, distributor or retailer is going to shoot themselves in the foot by not having available the beers that are selling the biggest volume and are most in demand. That simply makes no economic sense. If you really can’t find the beer you want, you’re going to go looking for it elsewhere. What business do you think will stay in business very long if nobody’s buying what they sell?

      • Jonas says

        Re: “…many of the big bottles are more expensive because they’re more limited and may have taken more time, more ingredients and more effort to make. If you don’t want to buy them, there’s a simple solution: don’t.”
        Case in point I bought the Ommegang 15th Anniversary Ale in all its 750ml & canister-packaged glory. I am fully aware that it’s a financial sacrifice, and that I’m buying just one bottle in my life, and that I could have bought a lot of Founders IPA instead. My attitude is I love these breweries for even bothering to provide me with these one-offs and extravagances… and besides, Ommegang usually rocks.

  7. beerman49 says

    AMEN to Jay & Garrett for shooting that pretentious rectal orifice & his horseshit article down! And to all the other commentators, save for the “beancounter” (who sounds like a lazy & whiny spoiled brat), we’re all on the same page w/Jay.

    Hasn’t the NYT writer seen the “wino brews” (Colt 45, Old English 800, et al) being sold in 16 & 24-oz cans & in 40-oz bottles (which replaced quarts) for the last 40+ yrs? SN & New Belgium are selling brews in 16-oz cans; we’ve bought craft brews in glass of every ounce size from 7-25.4 forever! 5 “geek” friends of mine & I did a beer & cheese pairing last Sat nite – the beer ranged from “homey” to semi-rare, ABV’s ranged from 5-11.5 (4 in the 5-5.5 range; the rest were 7+), & the containers from which it came were host’s kegs in his beer fridge, plus 12-oz, 0.5L, 22-oz, & 750 ML bottles. We had a helluva 6-hr session, & nobody was really “lit”, except the host – the starch (plenty of good crackers & bread) & the cheeses (close to 15 in all) absorbed the brew. As far as we’re concerned, that snooty writer can stuff it!

    What Jay mentioned about being a “cross drinker” is spot on – I & most of the beer geeks I know also like a good glass of vino w/a meal (or after), &/or a good shot of booze in or out of a well-crafted cocktail. I;m drinking Scotch as I write; I had good craft brew before & with dinner @ my local.

    I have zero tolerance for pretentiousness, & it’s very apparent the commentators before me, save for the dissenting nitpicker, are in the same camp.

  8. Garrett Oliver says

    Bravo to Jay, and thanks! My comments for the Times were much longer, but got cut to their 1500 character limit. This crap makes me really, really angry. According to our data, sales of these large bottles are growing at a rate of 45% per year – and it’s faster for us at Brooklyn Brewery. So this writer pats us on the head, tells us we have some sort of “wine envy”, and tells us to sit at the kid’s table and be quiet? Really? Yah, I don’t think so.

  9. says

    Behind every great wine maker is a great brewer. You simply cannot make great wine without having a beer at the end of a long day in the cellar at harvest time. Now that we are beginning to see quality wine on tap I am getting mightily concerned about the beerification of wine. I cannot sleep at night because of it.

  10. Jonas says

    I don’t mind good USA brewers releasing large-format products, and I hope their doing so encourages them to always put something inside those big bottles that is commensurate with the price.
    Beer is not in any kind of retarded state of evolution behind that of wine; people’s awareness is stymied in America’s condescending & noveau-riche wine culture. No anger, patience is needed here. Let’s enjoy great beer while it’s still our little secret, and appreciate great wine at the same time – a double advantage – since ‘living well is the best revenge.’

  11. Daniel says

    Jay, your article was well-wriiten and properly stated what is likely the opinion of most beer people. I am pleased to see folks like yourself and Garrett Oliver defending the industry we are passionate about. Cheers to you and your excellent work in speaking for the beer community at large.

  12. William Cameron says

    Some ignorant folks have their noses so high in the air they break it every time they walk through a door way.
    I am an American living in Germany. As a child in America my parents would occasionally buy and split a quart of beer. They were not big drinkers. I never thought twice about it.
    Here occasionally I can get bottles of beer in various sizes. I didn’t know large bottles meant cheap beer, often here, it is exactly opposite. The great Belgium Oval beer, is the smallest bottle of beer I’ve ever drank.

    I vaguely remember from my military time back in the Dark Ages, some folks liked Ripple and Mad Dog 20-20 which came in small bottles. No wonder folks drink Miller Lite, instead of wine.
    Such a statement makes as much sense as that person who had much to say about nothing, and like many of those, had little understanding of what he was talking about in the first place.

    A fine beer is a fine beer, with many complex tastes, like a fine wine.

    The man is willfully, arrogantly ignorant and wishes to stay so. He should educate his palate with some of those ‘craft’ beers he so despises, unfortunately in his crowd, there are none who can teach him. Like drinking fine wine, fine beer must also be taught.

    I live in Germany where many fine to great beers can be found. Last year I bought a single big bottle of beer. Aged in a sherry keg for a bit more than a year. It cost me €22. It was wine bottle size. There is a brewery in Michealstadt, that makes a real old fashioned beer, filled before your eyes, sold in a 1 1/2 liter bottle, that you should drink the same day, defiantly before it is three days old.
    Some times there is nothing like a big bottle of great beer.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jay Brooks, for example, takes my point that brewers want more consumers to see their beers as equal to wine as a pairing with a fine meal as an insult; he believes I am implying they are not: “Frankly, meat dishes like braised short ribs naturally pair much better with beer than wine so really it’s wine that should have to fight for this respectability, but the author just takes it for granted that wine must be the better choice for a food pairing. What arrogance.” […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>