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