The CNBC show Closing Bell had Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Director Julia Herz on the program earlier today. Despite the host showing some ignorance of beer and asking a few hostile questions, Julia held her own and did beer proud.
While Consumer Reports is an invaluable tool for buying the best among many different types of appliances, cars and widgets, when it comes to beer … not so much. Last year, Consumer Reports Rate[d] Mainstream Beers, with horrible results. More recently, they released their choices for the “Best Craft Beers,” stating that their “experts did blind taste tests of 23 ales and lagers.” The whole report will be in the August 2013 issue. As I’m on a deep deadline, I’m not going to be able to dissect where they went wrong, so I’ll instead happily defer to Jeff Alworth’s take, Consumer Reports on Craft Beer: #Fail, in which he describes how their “hardy band of untrained, eager tasters” chose 23 beers and “put them through their rigorous — if wholly clueless — tasting regime.” Some of their choice conclusions include that “the best ales have intense, complex, and balanced flavors” but “the best lagers are very tasty but not quite complex or intense enough to be excellent,” while they describe the worst beers as “decent but not as balanced, complex, or intense as the others, and some have off-flavors—hinting of cheese, soda water, or even paint.”
And while I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff that anyone with or without formal training can competently judge beer, I also agree that it can expose a “massive blind spot … when untrained people try to assess [the] ‘best’ among a widely differing group of beers with no regard to tradition or style.” Any of that’s fine if you’re sitting around your kitchen table with your buddies sampling the lastest haul from a beer run. But if you’re a massively influential consumer ratings group, you should take it a little bit more seriously and not just assume that the way you rate everything else will work in every instance.
People may laugh, but judging beer can be hard. (I assume at this point, I’ve become the equivalent of the supermodel complaining about standing around and looking sexy while people snap her picture.) But there’s more to it than simply swigging a few beers and saying which one you like best. Anyone can do it, but in order to do it competently and well, you still need to put in the time, gain the experience that’s necessary to calibrate your palate and understand what you’re drinking and why it tastes the way it does. It’s not magic, but you can’t learn to do it overnight, either. Like any learned skill, you have to keep doing it until you gain a certain competence, and then continue doing it to maintain or improve that level of proficiency.
I’ve judged beer on three continents, in local, regional, national and international competitions over a period of decades. No matter how often I do it, it’s always a challenge. There’s always something new to learn and appreciate, new combinations of aromas and flavors to consider against others, and a new understanding of the beers you’ve tasted. As Alworth nicely concludes. “Context matters. If you don’t understand why a beer tastes the way it does, you’re not going to appreciate the flavors you apprehend.” And that, I believe, is why Consumer Reports continues to do a great disservice to their readers when it comes to beer.
Oh, and one last snide remark. They have Samuel Adams listed among “the best ales.” Without identifying it, I can only assume that’s the Samuel Adams Boston Lager they’re referring to, which suggests a certain sloppiness, don’t cha think?
While I’m firmly in the “beer came before bread” camp in the anthropological debate about what sparked civilization, evidence has been mounting for that view since it was first proposed over a half-century ago. In a new opinion piece in the New York Times by Jeffrey P. Kahn, the CEO of WorkPsych Associates, entitled How Beer Gave Us Civilization, he lays out the case for why “we needed beer” and runs through an overview of early civilization’s introduction of alcohol and why it was so necessary to our development. He also brings into the debate a recent study from the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic, which adds new support for what I call the “beer first” theory.
He unfortunately ends with the long-discredited Benjamin Franklin beer quote, but apart from that gaffe, it’s a good read. Just stop short of the final two paragraphs, and it’s even better. He should have just finished with this sage observation. “Beer’s place in the development of civilization deserves at least a raising of the glass.” Hear, hear.
Illustration by Anders Nilsson.
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.
As the news keeps swirling around the possible — I say inevitable — buyout of Grupo Modelo by Anheuser Busch-InBev in a breathless “will they, won’t they” kind of coverage, I’m utterly fascinated by the theater of it all. It’s especially interesting to see the many “business experts” weighing in with no real understanding of the history of the brewing industry or how it all works. These “instant experts” all seem to assume that general economics or business principles apply equally well to every scenario, yet fail to grasp that alcohol has always navigated a different path through the economic world, with extra layers of taxation, legislation and law, its moral or anti-alcohol critics, and has to abide by at least 51 sets of laws (federal laws plus one for each state). I brought this up last month in The Beer Monopoly, but this morning an economics reporter from the New York Times, Adam Davidson, weighed in with his own take on the shenanigans.
In his It’s the Economy column published today, Are We in Danger of a Beer Monopoly?, he gives his own version of reality. In his world, where there are nearly 2,400 American breweries, he at least admits many of them are “tiny,” but goes on to claim that a few “have become large national brands.” National, yes, but “large” is a somewhat relative term. They’re large compared to a tiny nanobrewery or even an average sized brewpub, but the volumes of beer manufactured by ABI and SABMIller are in another class altogether. All 2,398 of the other breweries represent much less than 10% of the total beer produced in the U.S., meaning there’s a fairly wide chasm between the two groups, even if “a handful” of them have been successful. Measured against the domination of the biggest two, even the most successful seem modest by comparison.
But this is an argument that many economists seem to make, and indeed it’s the same argument that ABI always makes when they’re trying to buy another global company. How can there be a monopoly with so much competition? Just walk down the beer set in an average grocery store and, if you know who owns or controls what, you’ll easily see who’s winning the beer wars. The power wielded by ABI and SABMiller is so far above that of any smaller brewer, or even the total of all of the smaller ones, that it really is a true David and Goliath relationship. Sure, the big guys throw a few crumbs to the little guys nipping at their heels, but they don’t feel seriously threatened by them. Lately, they’ve been paying closer attention because they’re losing incremental marketshare, but they’ll respond to any such loss, because it hurts the share price. But saying they’re on equal footing is the economic equivalent of pretending that employees and employers have equal bargaining power, as most economic textbooks continue to insist.
But here’s Davidson’s takeaway from recent events as ABI tries to win approval for buying Grupo Modelo. “So I was surprised to learn that the Justice Department is worried that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the conglomerate that owns Bud, is on the cusp of becoming an abusive monopoly.” That’s almost spit take worthy. “On the cusp?” ABI has been a de facto monopoly with one or two others for decades, all but controlling the marketplace, not that anybody has been particularly concerned in the business world.
Anyone who hasn’t had their head buried deep in the sand for last few decades has to have noticed that we live in a society utterly dominated by business interests. Business power is the only power that matters. Political power takes a back seat to it and the will of the people is something politicians invoke only when they’re trying to get elected. How else can you explain that corporations have all the benefits of being a person, with none of the responsibilities or consequences? How else can money be considered free speech to influence politics? How else can you explain the many businesses deemed too big to fail while the same individuals those corporations ruined are left swinging in the wind, with no life raft for the ordinary flesh and blood person.
Davidson goes on to give a flawed history of the brewery business, and seems to think that mergers are a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, brewery mergers and acquisitions have been going on in brewing since the late 19th century, and stopped only briefly for about thirteen years, during Prohibition. Then he says we’re “still in the very early stages of what appears to be a global version of the scale-based consolidation we’ve seen in the United States over the past century.” I can’t tell if that’s a joke? The global beer world has been dominated by an ever-shrinking group of very large conglomerates for at least the last three or four decades. It’s hardly a new thing. In 2010, the four largest beer companies accounted for over half of all beer worldwide, and according to another source the Top 5 were about half. Heineken, Carlsberg, and a few others are very large companies, indeed, and they, too, have been gobbling up breweries around the world for many, many years.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Davidson has his own S.H.A.M.E. profile. Why the New York Times continues to let him shill for big business, well’s that’s a whole other discussion, but it’s obvious he’s defending the pro-business position. It’s also clear that he’s part of the theater that will ultimately end in the DOJ’s approval of the deal between ABI and Grupo Modelo. Here’s my prediction of what will happen next. As always happens, the two parties will hammer out a compromise that was probably the deal everybody wanted in the first place, but this way both parties look good in the public eye. The DOJ will look like they’re being tough on big business and are protecting the public while ABI will look good because they were able to get the deal done, and their share price will shoot up. Everybody wins. As Shakespeare observed, “all the world’s a stage.” And we’re the audience. I just wish they’d stop pretending we’re all idiots.
Oh, I hate to pick on the mainstream media as they cover the world of beer, but this is too delicious not to point out. In a story about the proposed buyout of Grupo Modelo by Anheuser-Busch InBev, entitled The Great Beer Monopoly Deal May Be Back On, the Atlantic features the following photo, which I downloaded in case somebody gets wise and replaces it. And a hat tip to Tom Dalldorf for sending me the link. I guess one Bud’s as good as another. Can I assume I don’t have to draw a diagram?
If you haven’t seen it yet, U.S. News & World Reports had an interesting read entitled Hopslam: How Big Beer Is Trying to Stop a Craft Beer Revolution, and subtitled “The blocked merger between Modelo and Anheuser-Busch shines a light on the long-brewing fight between big beer and craft brewers.” It’s a long piece, but worth it for pulling together a number of threads that have been pulling together lately.
In case you missed it, yesterday’s New York Times had an article on Brettanomyces entitled Brettanomyces, a Funky Yeast, Makes Flavorful Beers that’s worth a read.
Wow. Just, wow. Rarely have I seen such naked ignorance on display in print, and in the Wall Street Journal, no less. “Self professed negative styled humorist” Joe Queenan has written a piece for the Journal entitled Foaming at the Mouth About Craft Beer that packs in more idiotic commentary per column inch than I’ve seen in a long time.
Queenan begins by admitting that he knows nothing about craft beer and that everybody else seems to be talking about it, causing him great consternation. Then he drops this bomb.
It doesn’t help that I don’t drink. I used to drink a long time ago, but back then we didn’t talk about beer. We merely drank it. We might occasionally discuss wine—especially if we were in France—but beer wasn’t viewed as a suitable topic for conversation. Beer was simply an ingenious device one used to get hammered.
As a teetotaler, there’s little chance he’ll understand craft beer. It’s a bit like teaching a fish to ride a bicycle. Or as my friend and colleague, drinks writer Stephen Beaumont put it. “And what is a teetotaler doing writing about beer, anyway? [It’s] Like me writing about nuclear physics.”
On and on he goes, presumably trying to be funny but missing the mark by a country mile. And everywhere he goes, people are talking about craft beer. And he finds himself increasingly “frozen out of conversations because [he] literally know[s] nothing about craft beers.” Of course, he could pick up a book, use the internet or even ask a few questions of the throngs of craft beer drinkers he’s surrounded by. That appears to never occur to him. He could educate himself, but he voluntarily chooses ignorance instead. He’d rather be pissed off than join the conversation.
Of course, he also admits that talking about beverages is nothing new, when he notes that he and his friends used to “occasionally discuss wine — especially if we were in France — but beer wasn’t viewed as a suitable topic for conversation.” Hey Joe, guess what? That was then; this is now. You’re about to take Andy Rooney’s place, imagine this next sentence in Rooney’s voice. ‘You ever notice how people know more about beer now than when I was a kid?’ Times have changed, Joe, and apparently you’re not too thrilled that you’ve been left behind. People discussed wine in France for the simple fact that it was an engaging, interesting subject. When you came of age in the 1970s, American beer was almost all the same, so you can be excused for thinking beer wasn’t a “suitable topic for conversation.” At that time, it wasn’t. But that changed. A lot. And given that you’ve been a “media figure,” a commentator on public life and pop culture for many decades, there’s simply no excuse for not noticing that the status of American beer has been on the rise for quite some time. After all, it’s been in all the papers, even some of the ones you write for. To have missed what’s been going on would be to display monumental willful ignorance.
It’s especially odd when you write that “on a trip to Philadelphia, I happened upon a local magazine called Philly Beer Scene,” and you note it looked like Vanity Fair. But you failed to mention that you’re from Philadelphia, indeed grew up there and went to college at Saint Mary’s University. Ignorance about beer is one thing, but about your hometown? Is that a literary license? A plot device? Or has it really been that long since you’ve made the trek all the way from upstate New York to Philly? Surely you could not have failed to notice that Philadelphia has become one of the premiere beer cities in the nation. It should have been obvious in nearly any restaurant or bar you happened upon.
But okay, fine. You’re an idiot about beer, and apparently you like it that way. Nobody’s forcing you to keep up with the times, appreciate that beer is different now than when you were a child or do even a modicum of research on the subject. Ignorance is indeed bliss, and by your own admission you must be the most blissful man in America.
All well and good, but then you had to go and try to persuade others that your point of view has some legitimacy, merit or even a chance in hell of turning back the clock to the good old days when everybody was just as ignorant as you are about beer with these statements. “I want people to cut this out right away” and “I want the madness to stop.” I got bad news for you, Joe. Craft beer is here to stay. The madness will indeed continue. You might as well get used to it.
Ugh, why do people keep defending low-calorie light diet beer? It’s an abomination. It should go away. It’s a marketing trick. It’s the best selling kind of beer in America, and defending it is the equivalent of complaining about the “War on Christmas” or the “War on White People.” Yes, sales have been slipping lately, with more people choosing beer with flavor, but certainly not enough to put much of a dent in the sheer volume of this dreck. Yes, many, if not most, craft beer drinkers choose not to drink it and some even bash it as something not worthy of respect. Well, I am one of those people. Not everything deserves our respect. I respect how difficult it is to make, but in the end that’s not the standard I want to use for how I choose what to drink. Degree of difficulty may be fine for Olympic gymnastics or diving, but taste is far more important to me when it comes to my beer.
So please stop telling me I must love it because it’s really, really hard to make. I get that. I marvel at the technology that must be employed, the sacrifice of ingredients to keep it lighter in color and flavor, the loving care taken to make something that … should … not … exist, and would not exist if not for the Herculean effort to make it. It’s unnatural. So why go to such an effort to make something nobody wanted in the first place? Why spend millions of dollars to convince people they should be drinking it? Why create new processes to create Frankenbrew in the laboratory when ordinary beer was perfectly fine, thank you very much? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Did anyone say “money?” Show ’em what they win. They win a beer landscape dominated by beer that tastes as close to water as technologically possible. Hooray! Drop the balloons, throw the confetti and start the singing and dancing.
Earlier this summer, David Ryder, Vice-President of Brewing for MillerCoors wrote an op-ed piece in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled In Defense of Light Beer, in which he trotted out the old saws about light beer. The fact that the two top-selling products his company makes are Coors Light and Miller Lite should, of course, have made anyone suspicious of his motives and question any arguments in his editorial piece. The fact that the Sun-Times ran such an obviously biased piece is rather sad, I think. It’s a bit like asking Lee Iacocca to defend the Pinto. You can’t expect objectivity.
But now there’s another article telling me I have to respect light beer, this time in a magazine I actually read, and usually enjoy: Mental Floss. The piece, Scientific Reasons to Respect Light Beer is written by Jed Lipinski, who appears to not be a frequent writer about beer, not that that should matter. After a few anecdotes from craft beer fans disparaging light beer, he launches into his defense:
What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there’s little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, “Light beer is a brewer’s beer. It may be bland, but it’s really tough to do.” Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same. Staring at a bottle, it’s staggering to consider the effort that goes into producing each ounce of the straw-colored liquid. But perhaps the most impressive thing about light beer isn’t the time needed or the craftsmanship or even the consistency, but how many lives the beverage has saved.
And there’s degree of difficulty again. Is light beer really a “brewer’s beer?” I have to question that one. But even more of a howler is how “Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process.” They may find the technology or the process interesting, they may even be impressed by the effort, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewing monk who prefers Bud Light to Duvel, or Orval, or Westmalle. Can anyone really think the average German brewer “marvels” at Miller Lite when compared to the average everyday Bavarian beer? Or that the brewers of England think Coors Light better than the average cask hand-pulled from their local pub? In fact, until the rise of low-calorie diet beer, most Europeans, when referring to “light” beer, thought of light in terms of color, as the German helles (which means “bright” or “light”) or hell (an adjective for “light”). Also, he begins by referring to light beer as having “thin flavors.” Since when has that ever been a positive attribute for anything? When is “less flavor” something to strive for? Name another food product where the goal is to create a version with not as much flavor.
But then there’s that last bit, about how light beer has saved lives. Huh? Yeah, that was my response, too. Huh? And here’s the reason.
“Before it was light beer, it was “small beer.” A popular drink in late-medieval Europe and colonial America, small beer was necessary for certain civilizations to grow. In the days before Brita filters, beer staved off disease and dehydration by packing just enough alcohol to kill off pathogens found in drinking water.
Except that it wasn’t. One didn’t evolve into the other, in some natural progression. The two are not the same, apart from both being low-alcohol and beers. He even contradicts himself by saying that it was popular in medieval times and allowed “civilizations to grow.” Given that civilization was around for thousands of years before that period of history and that beer was there at the very dawn of civilization, I think we can safely say that “small beer” didn’t save mankind. Beer generally had a hand in keeping people healthier longer, allowing those with a tolerance for alcohol to prosper and procreate, but it wasn’t “light beer” that saved the day. If those people had to wait around for brewers to figure out they could use the second runnings of their strong beer to make a lower strength beer that they could sell for less, they would not have survived. Small beer was essentially a way to make more money, to re-use part of the brewing waste, first created by English brewers, although most brewing cultures also made a beer of lower strength that was essentially a table beer. Anchor Brewing has continued the English tradition by making a Small Beer from their Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, and despite it being 3.3% a.b.v., it’s about as far from a low-calorie light diet beer as one could be.
Light beer was the brainchild of one man, who thought people would want diet beer. He was wrong, though he did come up with the process of how to make a low-calorie diet beer. Here’s the story, from an earlier post of mine:
The first low-calorie beer was created by Joe Owades, who, it must be said, had some very strong opinions about beer. He once told me that all ale yeast was dead and inferior to lager yeast. Around 1967, he created Gablinger’s diet beer, the first light beer, while working for Rheingold. It flopped. Big time. Not everybody agrees on what happened next. Some accounts credit Owades with sharing his recipe for light beer with Meister Brau of Chicago while others claim that the Peter Hand Brewing Company (which marketed Meister Brau) came up with it independently on their own. However it happened, Meister Brau Lite proved somewhat more successful than Gablinger’s, primarily due to its superior marketing. Miller Brewing later acquired Meister Brau, and in 1975 debuted Miller Lite, complete with the distinctive, trademark-able spelling.
But it took marketing the new low-calorie beer in a new way so that it removed the “diet” stigma to make it work. They had to trick people into drinking it. Miller’s famously successful “tastes great, less filling” campaign was the primary reason for the category’s success. But it was hardly overnight. It took fifteen years — from 1975 to 1990 — for Miller Lite to reach 10% of the market. Over that time, the other big brewers (loathe to miss out on any market share) introduced their own versions, such as Coors Light and Bud Light, so that whole segment of low-calorie beer was nearly 30% of the beer market by 1990.
Today, seven of the top ten big brands are light beers. Despite its recent dip in sales, it remains a $50 billion segment of the business and still hovers close to half of all beer sold in the United States. That fact, I find to be incredibly sad, frankly. What a great triumph of marketing over common sense and actual taste.
Which is why I hardly think anyone needs to be rushing to its defense. People are willingly drinking it in frighteningly high numbers. I can only assume they’re the same people who buy Wonder Bread, Kraft cheese, TV dinners and every other popular product, even when everybody knows better, healthier, tastier alternatives are available.
Owades supposedly saw the focus group data indicating that people were giving up beer to save calories. Remember, this was the 1950s. Of course, it seems to me the smarter decision would have been to persuade people that beer is not as fattening as they thought. That this is true means it probably would have been a much easier sell. The idea that beer is so fattening is something of a myth, just like the beer belly. It seems to me that if the beer companies at that time had thrown their millions of ad dollars into that message, things might be a lot better today. But they chose the harder path, one we’re all still paying for. Instead of changing the message, they went with “the customer is always right” approach and created a beer to satisfy the consumer’s misconceptions and incorrect assumptions. In other words, when the customer was wrong, they just went with it. When it tanked, instead of cutting their losses, they instead spent millions persuading customers something that wasn’t true; that beer was fattening, but drinking this “magic diet beer” would fix that. The first thing they learned was not to call it “diet beer.” It’s what pharmaceutical companies have learned how to do so well. They first come up with the drug, then create the condition it will cure, even if it didn’t exist before. Anybody remember “restless leg syndrome” before the drug that treats it came on the market?
Lipinski goes on to detail the technology and the steps in the process that big breweries take to create low-calorie diet beer. And even he admits it was a tough sell at the beginning, and how a barrage of advertising was necessary to make it succeed. So tell me again why I have to respect something that had to be sold to the American people through advertising and marketing and which would probably not exist had that advertising failed? If those ads had not worked, low-calorie diet beer could have just as easily ended up on the scrap heap with dry beer, ice beer or tequila-flavored beer.
Peter Kraemer, a VP at ABI, seems to believe part of the problem is with definitions. He claims that “‘light beer’ has lost all meaning over the years” and he “considers [regular Budweiser and Bud Light] both light beers.” In that, he may be on to something. Regular Bud and Bud Light were once judged at GABF as separate categories, but today are sub-categories under the umbrella “American-Style Lager, Light Lager or Premium Lager,” a category I judged a first round of this year. Indeed, even the technical differences in the four sub-categories are slight. I suspect that they may have been more different at one time, but as Anheuser-Busch finally revealed in a 2006 Wall Street Journal article, Budweiser Admits Flavor “Drifted” Over the Years. So regular Bud has been slowly “creeping” closer to Bud Light over the years. But the fact is they taste pretty similar, have not much difference in terms of calories and are separated only in the way they’re marketed. They remind me of the choice between 87 regular octane gasoline and 91 premium octane. I’m told they’re not the same gasoline but damned if it makes any difference to my car, and I’ve long suspected that it’s like an old Dave Berg cartoon I saw in Mad magazine where all the gas actually comes out of one big tank below the pumps, and really is all the same.
And why not, the driving force in these changes is being able to use less ingredients, making the profits higher. It’s not rocket science. Use less malt and hops, and it will cost less to produce the beer, all other costs being equal. Over a small batch or two, it’s probably not that much, but in vats the size of Montana, it makes a big difference to the bottom line. And that’s plenty of incentive to spend the ad dollars to convince people that the flavor you’re not tasting is what you really want, because it’s better for you, won’t fill you up and, besides, it still tastes great. Trust us.
The other reason, or incentive, that the big brewers have for light beer is that having convinced people that they have less calories, people feel that they can actually drink more of them. And that’s what they end up doing. So by promoting them as healthier, diet beer, people end up actually drinking more calories. As The Litigation Consulting Report explains, in order to get the same buzz, that is the same amount of alcohol (which is also lower in most light beers), you’d have to drink 15 light beers to get the same alcohol that’s in six regular beers. According to them, this is known as the “compensation” effect and “is an issue in some product liability cases.”
But the diet aspects of beer already work for all beer, no reason to even sacrifice the flavor between the two. But since they’re admittedly both the same, you may as well avoid both regular and the diet versions in favor of something with actual flavor. That’s one of the biggest reasons I hate low-calorie diet beer: there’s simply no reason for it to exist. For most beers, have two instead of three and you’ll be ahead of the game. Drink smarter, drink better.
I realize I’m in the minority here, as every time I write about counting calories, people comment that they do actually watch their caloric intake, but I do not, and never have. I’ve gone over 50 years without counting a single calorie and, while I may not be the world’s healthiest man, I’m not the world’s worst either. And I’ve certainly never regretted choosing to eat or drink whatever I want. I find the slavish obsession to calorie counting absurd, but have come to recognize that many people really do care about them. I’ve written about this issue before, in Calories In Beer: Can We Please Stop?, Calories In Beer: Can We Please Stop, Part 2 and Read This, Not That. Life is undoubtedly about making choices, assessing risks and deciding what’s best for you.
Still, if you love beer, why defend low-calorie diet beer that is in every way as far from actual beer as possible? Everyone acknowledges it has less flavor. It has a few less calories, but stripping calories also strips … wait for it … flavor. But the difference between regular and diet beer seems so slight to me to be almost meaningless, especially when simply drinking one less beer would have roughly the same effect. If Budweiser has 145 calories in a 12 oz. bottle, and Bud Light has 110, drinking three diet beers would save you 105 calories. But have just two Buds, and you’d save 40 calories over three Bud Lights. Better still, choose two Samuel Adams Boston Lagers (160 calories) and you’d still save 10 calories over three Bud Lights or choose two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales (175 calories) and it will cost you only 20 more calories than drinking three Bud Lights would, though you’d still save 85 calories drinking two Sierra Nevada Pale Ales instead of three regular Budweisers. The point is that the caloric savings in diet beers are a sham. The differences are too slight to sacrifice so much flavor and enjoyment.
To sum up, diet beers were created in a laboratory to fill a need that didn’t exist. Making the beer that nobody wanted is incredibly difficult, and much harder than just making normal beer. To be successful, millions of dollars had to be spent on marketing and advertising to convince people to buy the thing that’s harder to make that they didn’t want in the first place. Finally, after nearly 40 years, and at least 20 that they’ve dominated the market, sales are starting to slip as people are choosing beer with more flavor instead. But rather than follow the shifting marketplace, pleas are being made that we should respect the beer nobody wanted that’s harder to make because … well, just because it is so danged hard to make and is a technological marvel deserving our respect.
As Lipinski wittily remarks in his closing sentence, he hopes his efforts at persuading you to respect light beer will “help you see the brew in a new light,” but there’s really nothing new in his arguments. His “scientific reasons” can only command your respect up to a point. I can respect the process, I can respect the technology, I can respect the effort made, but I still can’t respect the results. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can, quite frankly. With no disrespect to the many wonderful brewers who make low-calorie light diet beer, you can do better. You know you can. I have no truck with your skill as brewers or with the technology you wield so impressively. But I want a beer with more flavor. So until diet beer, like so many other diet products, tastes exactly the same as the more flavorful beers I prefer, I can’t give it the respect you insist it deserves.