The New Belgian Flag

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The Association of Belgium Brewers recently launched a campaign to celebrate Belgian beer … in Belgium. The marketing push, called “Fiers de nos bières” or “Proud of our Beers,” is trying to persuade the people of Belgium what beer lovers all over the world already know: that Belgian brewers make great beer that they should be proud of.

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There’s also a website, proudofbelgianbeers.com, and a Facebook page (in Dutch). I’m something of an amateur vexillologist, so by far my favorite part of the campaign is the new Belgian flag that the ad agency DDB Brussels created. Such a simple idea, slightly modifying the existing flag to add some angles and a put a creamy head on the middle of the flag. Genius. You can even buy your own Belgian beer flag for €20.

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Your Father’s Beer

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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning famously said a couple of weeks ago after his victory over the Chargers that all he could think of was how soon he could “get a Bud Light in [his] mouth.” It seemed like a slap in the face to pick Budweiser while being the QB in the land of Rocky Mountain spring water-made Coors. Not to mention that Colorado is one of the best beer states in America, so it’s no surprise that a number of smaller craft breweries also called him out for his choice of frosty beverage. But in subsequent interviews, Manning’s stuck to his guns, succinctly explaining the reason for his beer preference.

“My father taught me a number of things, one of which being that Bud Light is the preferred beer of the Manning household”

My only question is this. Peyton Manning is 37 years old. He’s also married with two children, and presumably no longer lives at home but has his own household. At what age did you stop doing everything your father told you? It may be true, but it seems like a bit of a cop out. I thought it was more common to eschew your father’s beer and make your own choices.

I remember a particularly enlightening conversation I eavesdropped on at GABF a number of years ago. I was walking the hall, in a hurry on my way to somewhere, when a group of at least half-a-dozen young men, presumably in their early twenties, blocked my path and forced me to slow up behind them. From just behind their slow-walking row, I could hear what they were saying as we ambled past the Sierra Nevada Brewing booth. One of the them elbowed his friend, and pointing his head toward Sierra Nevada’s booth, remarked. “Sierra Nevada; my Dad really likes that beer.” He put the emphasis on “Dad” when he said it, indicating that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I remembered that a while later when I was having dinner and some drinks with Ken and Brian Grossman, and mentioned what I’d overheard. They said they were fully aware of that as a growing problem, having been around long enough that they were becoming the new generation’s Dad’s beer. It’s part of the reason they began doing so many more collaborations, specialty releases and even beer camp. It’s an interesting facet of the craft beer industry as it grows and matures. How do you maintain your image while also remaining fresh to newer, younger customers? Because nobody wants to drink the same beer as their father. I know I didn’t, and don’t.

I know none of this matters and everyone is free to drink whatever the hell they want. Still, I find it fascinating to watch how certain statements play out in the media. Had Manning picked a Coors product, he would have pleased the hometown fans. Had he picked a craft beer, especially a local one, he would have made the hometown fans, and many good beer lovers, overjoyed. Instead he picked Bud Light, coincidentally the “official beer of the NFL,” so most likely the group he pleased the most was the league.

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Last fall, Manning apparently bought twenty-one Papa John’s Pizza franchises, all in Colorado. I wonder what beers they serve?

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Session #83: Against The Grain

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Our 83rd Session is hosted by Rebecca Patrick, who writes online at The Bake and Brew. Her topic for this session is decidedly against the grain, so much so that it is specifically Against the Grain.

How much is our taste or opinion of a craft beer affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks? What beer do you love that no one else seems to get? Or what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?

I can find myself wondering sometimes when I’ve had an extremely popular beer, but haven’t been all that “wowed”…is it me? Am I missing something here? Was there too much hype? Could there be such a thing as taste inflation? If we really want to dive further into this, is it really only “good” if a large portion of the craft beer community says it is or is our own opinion and taste enough?

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You only have to watch the lines at GABF at the beginning of each session to know that hype and brand perception do play a role in a brewery’s success. There are a handful of breweries whose lines are suddenly longer than most of the others, seemingly immediately after the doors open and the people rush inside. Many make a beeline to a select number of brewer’s booths. Many of these remain more crowded throughout the session. Are they better than other breweries? Perhaps, but probably not. They certainly make good beer, and beer which has, for whatever reason, captured the public imagination. That intangible popularity, whether manufactured or developed organically, is at least a part of the company’s success. Any business needs to have customers want to buy their products or they won’t survive. I know that sounds obvious, like the sports announcer who says the team has to score more points in order to win, but I think we sometimes forget that.

Indeed, many people complain mightily about hyped and over-hyped beers, forgetting that hype is the engine that drives awareness and, ultimately, sales. Honestly, if you don’t want to wait in a line all day for some rare (or even artificially rare) beer, I think I see a way out. Don’t go. But what I don’t understand is the need to piss on everybody else’s enjoyment of the event. The many release parties and events that numerous breweries create are generally well-attended, despite the complaining, so what’s the problem? It sometimes feels like we’re entering a phase in craft beer akin to the music world where as soon as a band becomes popular, their fans who were with them in the beginning accuse them of “selling out” or say they’re no good anymore, moving on to the next unknown. It was ridiculous when I was in the music business, and it’s no less absurd when it comes to beer.

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But that brings us back to Rebecca’s question about whether or not “our own opinion and taste [is] enough?” Yes. Yes, it is. If you’re a longtime reader of the Bulletin, you’ve probably noticed that I rarely post “reviews” of beers. Unless it’s part of a specific assignment, I generally don’t. I’ve been writing about beer over twenty years, and been judging at competitions for around fifteen years, and been drinking critically far longer than that, and still I don’t really understand why anyone would take my advice on how good a beer is. Whenever anyone writes a review, it’s personal. By design and definition, what I say about a beer is just how it tastes to me — what I like or don’t like about it — on that particular day and under the specific circumstances it was sampled (time and place). But your experience will vary. Your palate isn’t the same as mine. If I’ve learned anything from tasting with the same people for many years (on tasting panels and commercial judging) it’s that tastes vary. Different people have tolerances and sensitivities to certain flavors and those vary from person to person. It’s not a problem in most instances; spaghetti tastes like spaghetti to almost everybody. But when you examine anything more closely, the minute differences become more important when you’re paying close attention and looking for them. With so much variation, you’d think that beer judging would be little better than a crapshoot, and yet many beers that as a community we agree are at least good, tend to rise to the top and win awards multiple times. By careful selection of judges with different backgrounds and experience, and by making the standards for judging as unambiguous and detailed as possible, these differences seem to work themselves out. That’s been my experience, as least.

But having worked retail a lot when I was younger, I’ve also witnessed that many people do honestly want to be told what to try. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You ask someone who knows more than you for advice about what’s good, what’s worth trying. In theory, they should know more, and in practice that is often the case. At BevMo, though, I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed people walking the wine aisles with a Wine Spectator open to their ratings pages, shopping the scores. That seems less effective, to me because you don’t know how your own palate matches up to the reviewer (or how honest the review was).

One nice thing about beer, at least, is taking a bad recommendation won’t break the bank. If you try a pint or even a six-pack of something you end up not enjoying, you’re not out too much money. You may not take that person’s advice again, especially if happens several times, but that’s about it. If I start doing more reviews, which is always a possibility, my only goal would be to suggest beers to try, and perhaps why you’d want to, not why I like them, or why you must, too. I know there’s wide disagreement among writers on this issue, but I prefer to talk about what’s good, and not write bad reviews, in effect telling people what to avoid or what’s unappetizing. There’s just too much beer out there, with much of it quite good, to waste ink (or bytes) on tearing down a beer I didn’t happen to enjoy. I understand the counter-arguments, and realize bad reviews have their place, it’s just not for me.

I’m not quite sure that answers the question, or even does go against the grain, though it does ramble around in the vicinity of the topic. I don’t mind the hype surrounding many popular beers, mostly because I don’t get caught up in it. I think it’s a necessary part of there being so many breweries all trying to gain the attention of consumers. Each brewery has to find some way to stand out. Some of their attempts work better than others, naturally, but that’s to be expected. I’m probably not the typical beer consumer, and so am not swayed too much by opinion or popularity. On the other hand, I’ll try almost anything, and in fact am interested in doing just that, all the time. I rarely say “no thanks” to trying anything. I find these days it’s harder to be “wowed,” but I think that’s more about having tried so many beers in my lifetime. There’s certainly no shortage of great beers being made these days, and I’m still just as excited to try each new one I can. And as much as I’m happy to have a job talking about what beers I like and love, you should trust your own palate about what you enjoy most. I hope I can help steer you to something new or worthwhile from time to time, but if you love a beer than that alone makes it a great beer.

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Beer Brands Infographic

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Today’s infographic is an interesting one, created by Olivia Vander Tuig at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, during the Spring of this year, in collaboration with Annie-Locke Scherer and Madelyn Willey. The infographic compares the beer brands Pabst Blue Ribbon, Guinness, Miller High Life, and Heineken, and was made as a companion for a travel studio about branding and factory experience called Behind the Brand.

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Click here to see the infographic full size. You can also download a much larger version from dropbox.

Olympia Beer Offers Million Dollar Prize For Finding Bigfoot

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In what has to be one of the most unusual marketing efforts by a large brewer, Olympia Beer has offered to pay $1 million dollars — in increments of $25,000 a year for the next four decades — to anyone who can find conclusive evidence of a live Bigfoot. The contest is the brainchild of Evan and Daren Metropoulos, who recently bought Pabst Brewing Co., which also owns the Olympia brand.

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Full details and rules can be found at OlympiaBigfoot.com, but here’s their “Mission Statement” for finding Bigfoot:

Olympia Beer and Bigfoot have been leaving footprints together in the Pacific Northwest since 1896.

We have been sharing the same backyard for over a century and we believe it’s time to do what has never been done, and that is to offer a one million dollar reward to anyone who can ensure the safe capture of Bigfoot. When we say safe capture that means Bigfoot has to be alive and breathing folks, with no wounds. That’s right you can’t use any act of violence, no guns/knives/boxing gloves/nets/etc, only sugar or sweets to lure him in.

You must register to participate in the search. To report your discovery of irrefutable evidence of the existence of Bigfoot, click on the “Submit Capture Report” link on the left and follow the instructions to report your evidence. You participation in the search is subject to the complete Official Rules.

To aid us in this adventure, Olympia Beer is partnering with The Falcon Project

The Falcon Project has been identified as “the most penetrative search for Bigfoot ever conducted in the United States.” They will conduct an aerial search for Sasquatch employing an unmanned airship with high definition thermal imaging camera equipment.

Sure, it’s a publicity stunt, but it’s a funny one. And what if someone actually does it? Apparently 14% of all Americans believe Sasquatch to be real, while another 14% say they’re not sure.

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Winners must provide “irrefutable evidence” of Bigfoot’s existence and, according to the rules, may include “DNA Evidence.” From the rules:

“Bigfoot” refers to a previously undiscovered species of upright, bipedal hominid, native to North America existing contemporaneously with the Contest Period or the twenty-five (25) year period immediately prior to the Contest Period. There is no set type or amount of evidence required to establish proof for purposes of this Contest other than that all evidence presented must satisfy the Judging Panel. Evidence may include, but is not limited to DNA Evidence. DNA Evidence may include hair, blood, tissue or saliva that proves the DNA sequence of the donor shows that said donor resides in the primate evolutionary family tree, among other apes or hominids, but does not have the same genetic markers and DNA sequence as any known species. Evidence may also include “Visual Proof” of a live physical body. Physical remains may be considered as evidence provided that it can be conclusively demonstrated that the date of death pre-dated the Contest Period. Visual Proof shall not include footprints, bone fragments, inconclusive skeletal remains, or any other non-definitive evidence of the existence of Bigfoot. Any photo or video taken with photographic or video equipment is not sufficient to qualify as evidence in and of itself for consideration in the Contest, but may be considered as supporting evidence.
NO HARM SHOULD BE DONE TO BIGFOOT OR ANY LIVING CREATURE AS A RESULT OF PARTICIPATION IN THIS CONTEST. ANY EVIDENCE OF SUCH ACTIVITY SHALL LEAD TO DISQUALIFICATION FROM THE CONTEST AND NOTIFICATION TO THE PROPER LEGAL AUTHORITIES.

Annie Leibovitz Shoots Stella Artois

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A couple of days ago, Stella Artois sent out a press release that iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz was hired by Anheuser-Busch InBev to shoot photos for their Belgian lager. The photos are being released at the Sundance Film Festival, which started two days ago, apparently amid much hoopla. Which makes sense when you realize that Stella Artois is an “official sponsor” of the independent film festival, listed as a “sustaining sponsor.” They’re in fact the only big alcohol company sponsor, among quite a few corporate sponsors. I don’t know why that seems odd to me, but I guess I thought Sundance was supposed be about independent filmmakers, especially when the site also includes a donations page where they make it sound like your $10 will make a grassroots movement possible. Maybe I’ve become jaded, but the nearly two dozen truly big sponsors plus what looks like it could easily be another hundred more company sponsorships, seems counter to the principal of “independent” and their mission of “discovery and development of independent artists and audiences.”

In both the press release, Stella Artois Unveils New Campaign Shot by Legendary Photographer Annie Leibovitz and the Stella Artois website, they refer to it as a “collaboration” between the beer and photographer. But how is hiring a famous photographer and paying her to work a “collaboration” in any meaningful sense?

Merriam-Webster defines collaborate as “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” That’s what brewers do when they get together to brew a beer, most times at least, but this just seems like a big company paying a lot of money (one presumes Annie Leibovitz doesn’t work cheap) to an expensive big-name photographer to sell a big product. Does that make it art? I honestly don’t know. I think I’m cranky and overworked these days.

Here’s some more press release spin:

It features British Actor, Noah Huntley and Ukrainian model Tanya Ruban and will appear in the printed fashion titles such as GQ, Elle and Vanity Fair, beginning in February 2013.

“Annie Leibovitz’s work marries artistic genius with painstaking craftsmanship to create timeless beauty,” said Emma Fox, Global Marketing Director, Stella Artois. “This concept is a personal one for Stella Artois. Our fans experience the beer in its finished form, but 600 years of brewing expertise helped make this possible. So we wanted to celebrate both the beauty and the craftsmanship that go into its creation”.

So here’s the results, or at least two of them. You can see lots of behind the scenes of the photoshoot itself — why you’d want to, I don’t really understand — in the Stella Artois Studio, what the press release refers to as an “online experience.”

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It’s not that they’re bad photographs, but they certainly don’t make me want to drink Stella Artois. Didn’t Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer already do this in The Fabulous Baker Boys.

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Hyping the Next Session

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For our 70th Session, our host is David J. Bascombe, who writes Good Morning …, a blog about beer, mostly. His topic is all about the hype surrounding certain beers, and whether it’s warranted or not, whether it changes peoples’ perceptions of the beer, and what effect this all has in the modern beer landscape. Here’s David story cautioning everyone to be careful so they Don’t Believe The Hype:

Back in the summer, I shared a bottle of Westvleteren 12 with my brother and my father. Whilst I was aware of it’s reputation as “best beer in the world”, they were not. Whilst we all enjoyed it, we all agreed that we much preferred the other beer we had that night. The question that came into my head was this…

If I had told them it was the best beer in the world, would their perceptions have changed?

How much does hype have an effect? Are we much better off knowing nothing about a beer, or is it better to have the knowledge as to what the best beers are?

Which beers do you think have been overhyped? How do you feel when a beer doesn’t live up to it’s hype.

Is hype a good or bad thing for beer? Tell me what you think.

So I thought I’d at least hype the next session. Be here with your thoughts next month.

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So weigh in with your own hype on Friday, December 7.

James Bond Skyfalling For Heineken

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Okay, we’ve been inundated with ads lately, so you probably know that the new James Bond film Skyfall opens today, at least in the U.S. I’ve been a huge James Bond fan since I saw my first one in the theater, which was Thunderball, when I was six. I read all the books, and needless to say, saw every film multiple times. I’ve really been enjoying the reboot with Daniel Craig and will be taking my son Porter to see Skyfall this afternoon. This will be his first Bond film in the theater, though he’s seen a couple of them on DVD. I’m looking forward not just to seeing the movie, but in some ways I’m even more excited that he’s really jazzed to see it and has been talking of little else for the last week. There’s just one tiny problem.

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Heineken has been associated with the Bond franchise for some time now, but the $45 million deal for Skyfall also requires Bond to actually drink some. Now drinking beer is fine, even for Bond, of course. He styles himself as a hedonist, a man who enjoys the finest pleasures across the board. He soliloquizes on that very subject in the pages of the novel Casino Royale. Especially re-set or rebooted here in the present, where beer is every bit the equal of wine and spirits, you’d not only be unsurprised that Bond drinks beer, you’d be downright shocked if he didn’t. If you read the books, you’d know he’s never restricted himself to martinis but usually drinks the preferred alcohol wherever he happens to be, and has enjoyed beer in several of the novels.

I took a detailed look at this six years ago, when it was rumored that Bond would drink Heineken in Casino Royale — which turned out not to be the case — but which caused all manner of odd denunciations that the character would never stoop so low as to drink that swill reserved for the Hoi polloi. I don’t mean Heineken, I mean beer in general. Journalists, who could have done a little research, just went apeshit. Check out James Bond’s Beer. I’ll wait here.

So as you can see, beer and Bond have been together for quite some time now, just not in the way the media has portrayed it, as usual taking the propaganda and marketing given them at face value and regurgitating it without doing any fact-checking or wondering at how convenient it all seemed. Watching the first Bond film, Dr. No, with my son last weekend, I again noted that in Jamaica he’s talking with Quarrel at a bar and Red Stripe can be seen behind the bar. A few minutes later, fighting in the back room of the bar, Bond is pushed over onto a pile of empty Red Stripe cartons that go flying everywhere. Why they’re empty is a bit of a mystery, but the fact is although he never drinks any, there’s been beer front and center since the very first official film. In the novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, he finally manages to drink some Red Stripe. In fact, he drinks three of them waiting for someone in a cafe.

But in Skyfall apparently he’s seen drinking a Heineken from the bottle, while in bed with co-star Tonia Sotiropoulou. MGM has circulated the still below showing just that.

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Here was a portion of my take on Heineken and James Bond from six years ago:

Propaganda aside, I’m certainly in favor of James Bond drinking beer. If they’re trying to re-invent (or reboot) James Bond — which is my understanding of what the new film represents — it makes sense that a modern Bond would have embraced good beer along with the other pleasures of life today. That would be in keeping with the character’s philosophy. Undoubtedly one of the reasons that Bond was not a beer drinker in 1953 and beyond, when Fleming began writing the Bond novels, was that there were not many good beers widely available worldwide and what was available was not often written about. Remember Michael Jackson’s first beer book wasn’t published until 1977. And American wines were held in no better regard during that time period, either. So keeping Bond’s tastes and preferences rooted in a time fifty years ago, when the diversity and quality of alcohol beverages was vastly different than it is today, doesn’t make sense anymore, if indeed it ever did.

But Heineken? Not Heineken. Bond’s character would never drink such swill. He wouldn’t be a snob about wine, food, clothes, cars and practically everything else and then drink such a pedestrian beer. In fact, in the novel Casino Royale, in Chapter 8, just after ordering champagne, Bond makes the following pronouncement:

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very pernickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally have to eat my meals alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.”

So there is absolutely no way someone who would say that would turn around and order a skunked green-bottle of Heineken. Maybe a Thomas Hardy 1968, a Samuel Adams Utopias, a Deus, or a Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. He’d more likely order something showy, expensive and impressive; something that showed he had good taste. And that would never be a Heineken. Often Bond orders local specialties in the novels and films, and Casino Royale takes place in northern France. The fictional resort town where most of the novel takes place is supposedly near the mouth of the Somme River in the Picardie region, which is only about two hours from Belgium. So while France is not known for its beers, a good selection of Belgian beers would likely be available at the casino and area restaurants. That’s what a beer savvy Bond would order.

To which today I would only add that he’d never, ever drink it out of the bottle! Well, maybe not never, but if he had the choice, he’d do it the proper way, out of a glass because his character is all about knowing what’s the right way to do things and then taking a particular pleasure in doing them correctly. And what self-respecting English gentleman — or for that matter any Brit — would drink Dutch lager over his native ale, especially when his job was protecting the British way of life? It’s unseemly.

To take unseemly a few notches further, Refined Guy reported that Heineken USA will release two special metal bottles of Heineken using James Bond imagery. Known as “Star Bottles, on the plus side, at least the beer won’t get skunked as easily as in the green glass bottles.

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According to the website Bond Lifestyle, Heineken pulled out all the stops for the Amsterdam premiere of the film, with an obscene amount of product placement for the event. And I’m not alone in believing this tie-in is not the best idea, at least the way it’s being done, with many, many pundits weighing in across the globe. But I think an Australian commentator, Lucy Clark, summed it up best in B&T, when she said. “In the golden era, products were chosen because they fitted with the character. The sad thing is that, in the modern era, the character and plot is decided by sponsors.”

So while I’m really looking forward to seeing the film today — and hoping this will be one of those father/son moments that Porter remembers long after I’m gone (as it is for me) — what I hope above all else is that seeing that out-of-character Heineken won’t break the fourth wall for me and make it harder to immerse myself in the experience and just enjoy it. Fingers crossed.