Cleaning the Augean Stables
I don't like playing the Blame Game. Most times I don't care
whose fault something is: let's just fix it. My married life got
much better when, early on, I realized that it didn't matter which one
of us was right or wrong, or who won. What mattered was that the fight
was over, and we could get back to the loving friendship that we've
enjoyed for 14 solid years.
But sometimes the blame is part of the solution. Sometimes
you have to find out who is screwing up so you can figure out what
to do about it. To take that family analogy again, spraying and swatting
will kill a few of the fruit flies that are infesting your house, but
explaining forcefully to your kids that banana peels and peach pits have
to be put directly in the garbage can instead of under their
beds will put an end to it.
So what's the blame I want to lay on
someone? It's big, it's hard to fight, it's pervasive, it's been going
on for years. It's nothing less than the trivialization of beer.
this rank up there with world hunger? The plight of people living in
dictatorship? Curing cancer? Of course not. It doesn't even rank
with property tax reform. But I figure if you wanted to do something about
those problems (and maybe you are), you'd be reading some other website. Here
we talk about beer and whiskey (and pears
and chain restaurants), so this is an
important part of that universe of discussion. Priorities set and
calibrated? Okay. Onward.
Beer suffers from the sophomoric image
promoted by the Big Three brewers. Their marketing promotes an image
of beer as...stuff, something you have (but never drink, thanks to
strange rules that do not allow the portrayal of someone actually drinking
beer), something that makes good times happen, something in a package, a
bottle, a can, a glass. The infrequent ad that actually talks about the beer
rather than the precious image is notable largely as an exception,
and usually talks about the ingredients, the heritage, the process, but
rarely the taste in more than extremely abstract terms. The "Carb
War" is a classic example: they're talking about the beer, but in
extracted numbers, worse than geeks with their IBU-strutting. And when Bud
Light comes along and says "Choose on taste," you're left
wondering: okay, what does it taste like?
Not a lot, in all
honesty. That's no big deal, and it's no stunning rip of mainstream
American beer (or British 'lager,' for that matter) to say that. It's
hardly a big secret. After all, what's the usual complaint made by
mainstream drinkers about "other" beers? They're "too
heavy," or "too filling," or, in a classic, overheard in a
Texas brewpub, "I dunno...awful lot of flavor there." If
these beers have too much taste, it stands to reason that the beers these
fellows are used to, have much less. And it's not even anything that
bad. That's what mainstream beers are all about: crisp and
refreshing, fresh and light, and that's about it. From that, the ads make
sense: if you don't have flavor, you don't talk about it...because
you got nothing to talk about if you do.
The result of all
this deliberate marketing
(and the deliberate marketing of the idea that "beer" =
"mainstream American lager") has been the
trivialization of beer. Beer is all about frat-boy boozing, scantily
clad women, pounding a sixer, tapping a keg of brew to get some foamy
suds, the malted liquor that gets you drunker quicker. Isn't that
peachy? Some craft enthusiasts have given in to this mindset:
there's a guy out there right now trying to start a contract brew called Great
Sex Beer, to be brewed at various brewpubs so you could say "I
got Great Sex at ABC brewpub!" Brilliant. The Big Three (and Stroh
and Pabst and Heileman and all the others gone down to rust and dust who
polluted the waters in the same way) haven't labeled beer as the drink
of buffoons enough, you want to help?
Beer suffers, the industry
suffers, you suffer. Beer does not get the respect wine and
spirits do, and that leads directly to things like mistreated beer at the
liquor store ("It's just beer"), keg registration laws
("Kids get drunk at keggers!"), pathetically short beer lists at
restaurants ("Beer? We have everything, sir: Bud, Bud Light, and
Corona!"), and a general image of beer as something you only drink
to get drunk, an image that opens the door to all kinds of snobbery,
legal restrictions, and bad feelings.
Enough. The blame's been laid.
The problem is presented. What do we do to fix it?
wine. They had exactly the same problem 30 years ago. What's the word?
Thunderbird! Mad Dog 20-20. Strawberry Hill Forever! Annie Green
Springs. Riunite on ice, that's nice. Paul Masson: we will sell
no wine before it's time...in these cute little carafe bottles with
the pop-off lids. Ripple, the "cheap little 99˘ wine."
(Stop me when you've heard enough.) Tickle Pink. Hey, hey, hey, Mateus
Rosé. We're talking about wine you drank by the mug here,
stuff that wasn't even good enough to be called table wine, wine that
makes the box wines of today look like fine vino. And no one
talked about the taste.
But when was the last time you heard a drunk
called a "wino?" It's a term that has almost dropped out of
the every-day lexicon. It's symbolic of how wine's image has completely
changed in 30 years. And what happened? Big vintners like Gallo were led
out of the Valley of Shamelessness by the examples of small winemakers who
focused on the wine, on the inside of the bottle, not
the outside. Did they market? You bet. But their marketing was
based on the quality and taste of the product, the integrity of
the producer. Largely, their marketing focused on how the wine tasted,
how it was made, how good it was with food, and how sophisticated
the people who enjoyed it were.
The small winemakers prospered.
The big winemakers were smart enough to see success, and more than
talented enough to make wine that could match the quality and style of the
small producers. The market is now diverse, upscale, and wine is
respected. In fact, the campaign was so successful that some
vintners are actually trying to back off a bit; they are concerned
that people think wine is intimidating, that they don't know enough about
it to drink it. It might be a problem, but it's light-years from
Thunderbird and 4-liter jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. And the upshot is
that we now have a mature wine market: true differentiation, a strong
domestic industry based on quality and innovation, a growing,
sophisticated, and energized customer base, and deep penetration of
wholesalers, stores, and restaurants.
How can beer emulate this
progress? First, craft brewers and upper-tier importers should stay
the course. Keep selling the beer on its own merits. Imperial
IPA or cask-conditioned mild, beers need to be sold on flavor, on
heritage, on production values, not goofy names and sex. That's what got
us into this mess. Small vintners hung on and won; you can do the same.
Don't tire: you always have time to sell the idea of good beer as a beauty
Second, consumers need to speak
up. Don't let someone, anyone, talk down beer unchallenged.
That's not all beer they're talking about, and they need to know it. Don't
be obnoxious, just fit the response to the occasion: drop in that you had
stout with chocolate the other night and it was amazing, or that you've
got some Trappist ales made by Belgian monks they ought to try, or that
you can go see beer being made at your local brewpub. Hell,
write a letter to the editor of your local paper if they run a stupid beer
story, and encourage them to do better, and for readers to drink better.
watch your mouth. I've taken the terms "brewski,"
"suds," and "ice-cold brew" out of my vocabulary.
Don't add to the problem! These terms belittle beer. That may seem silly,
affected, or dorky, but language is powerful. If you name a thing, you
influence it: that's why anti-booze forces call malternatives "alcopops."
insist on good beer with your meal. If you go to a restaurant, ask
what beers they have, and if they have a tiny selection, ask why,
tell them you really wanted a (Belgian, a classic pilsner, a porter)...and
then settle for water. Patronize places with better beer lists. Urge them
We've got years of this crap to clean up.
Herculean allusions aside, it's not going to happen in a day. But won't it
be worth it when you walk into your favorite restaurant, ask for a porter
with your steak, and the waiter asks you, "Certainly, sir, which
one would you prefer?" Won't it be worth it when you never have
to hear Sam Adams called a dark beer again? Won't it be worth it
when the Big Three realize that they have to switch to a whole new
paradigm if they want to stay with the consumers' desires, a shift to smaller
batches of the truly distinctive beers they're capable of making but currently
disdain? Won't it be worth it when you open your brother-in-law's
fridge and finally find a selection of beer almost as good as
You bet it will, but it's a long way off. Grab that shovel and
let's get to work.