Pretentious and Complicated

Beer on a pedestal.

“I like to reward myself by trying different, flavourful beers, but I’m intimidated by most craft beers because they’re too pretentious and complicated.”

Those are the words ascribed to an imaginary beer consumer by those responsible for marketing AB-InBev’s Shock Top in Canada, as revealed in a leaked document shared by Ben T. Johnson yesterday.

Johnson is outraged that the marketing strategy apparently relies on fooling ill-informed, well-intentioned consumers into buying what they think is the product of a small independent brewery. Broadly speaking, we agree, at least on the issue of transparency: of course there’s nothing wrong with big breweries attempting to ‘do’ craft, but misleading consumers by failing to clearly declare ownership of the brand is rotten behaviour.

What really interested us, however, is the idea that there’s an unexploited middle-ground between so-called ‘macro gak’ and full-on, high-falutin Craft Beer, capital C, capital B.

There’s long been a balancing act in beer — or, if you like, a tension. On the one hand, some in the industry, along with serious enthusiasts, feel aggrieved that beer is treated as second class, simplistic and unworthy. They believe that it deserves the same kind of infrastructure of connoisseurship as wine — books, magazine columns, arcane lore, celebrities, vintages, sommeliers, a place at the dinner table, specialist tasting glasses and rituals, and so on.

But elevate it too far and, suddenly, it’s inaccessible and over-complicated: “If you’re not going to take this seriously, please don’t bother!” (Perhaps this is what we were getting at with yesterday’s post.)

The AB-InBev/Labatt document describes Shock Top as a ‘fun, flavourful craft brand’, and perhaps that’s a bandwagon Craft Beer should jump on: fun doesn’t need to mean dumb; and respecting beer doesn’t have to mean putting it on a pedestal.

53 thoughts on “Pretentious and Complicated”

  1. When I’m in a Grand Unified Theory sort of mood, it looks a bit like we’re seeing an increasing acceptance for a “little from column A, little from column B” approach to the slightly artificial “new wave craft vs real ale” thing across the whole set of things that originally more-or-less divided the two. So people are realizing that there is actually a market of people who like new and international beer styles, but are happy to have (for instance) a couple of regular, dependable and sensibly priced US IPAs rather than wanting a new and experimental one every week with the attendant price hike. Or – as in this case – for people who want decent beer with smart, modern branding but aren’t interested in extremes of taste or stylistic experiments.

    Of course, we’ll really know that we’ve got there when some hipsters in a South London railway arch open a brewery that does a neverending series of different takes on traditional British styles, with minimalist industrial-chic labelling and functionalist names like “Best Bitter 025 – Double Goldings”.

    1. Got there? We were there ages ago – Pictish did a whole series of single-hop bitters a couple of years ago, introducing unwary punters to a whole new range of terms. It’s only recently that craft brewers have adopted the poker dice* approach to beer styles, and I don’t think it’s a great development; I’m hoping it’ll blow over or collapse under its own absurdity. But then, I probably said the same thing about craft keg.

      *FX: rattling of dice (repeated under each pause)
      “OK, so it’s going to be a red
      [PAUSE]
      rye
      [PAUSE]
      barrel-aged
      [PAUSE]
      what’s that say? oh, coriander, nice! so that’s a barrel-aged red rye coriander
      [PAUSE]
      mild! Cool – let’s do it!”

      1. Oh dear, have I? I was thinking of Blackjack, at least in their current phase (I remember them starting out as rather cautious best bitter/premium bitter/golden ale merchants).

  2. I’d guess that it’s going to subside a lot.

    I quite like the fact that there are a people constantly chucking out a new and experimental beer every week – today’s reliable standard was yesterday’s off-the-wall experiment, and I don’t think it’s going to collapse, but I can see it slimming down quite a lot – there are probably still people who are willing to pay a bit extra to try something new and different every week, but there are probably going to be increasing numbers who are mostly happy to stick to a smallish set of reliably excellent beers from the likes of Moor and Thornbridge.

    Re Pictish – interesting, but that seems to be almost the opposite of what I’m talking about. By the looks of it, it’s mostly new world hops, and decidedly non-hipsterish branding, no? Also, I’m talking in generalities a bit. Someone will be along soon to point out that Oakham have been doing new-wave style beers from a non-new-wave style brewery since forever as well.

  3. I always find it amusing to watch the crafterati over here fulminate and foam at the mouth about large brewing companies ‘doing craft’ or being ‘crafty’ to nick a Brewers Association term.

    Yet at the same time the very same people, give Pilsner Urquell so much love it is positively vomit inducing, seemingly not realising that it is SABMiller brand (that’s not a bash at the beer, it’s still lovely).

    I wish we could just get over inconsequentials like corporate structure and focus on the liquid in the glass, ‘is it any good?’ is the only question worth answering.

    1. Honesty about corporate structure is important, even if the corporate structure itself isn’t necessarily.

    2. This is the bit where I always say “if it were made by mistreated orphans out of chained unicorn tears?” or something. Of course “is it any good?” isn’t the only question. That’s silly.

  4. I’m slightly surprised at Velky Al’s comment, suggesting that deliberate deception is irrelevant. I’m a bit weary of people who continually bleat, “It’s only the taste that matters”, as though sating one’s taste buds is all that matters.

    Many people like to know more about what they eat or drink: Where is it made? Is it a small brewery or a massive one? What ingredients have gone into it? Is that cheese from an artisan maker or an enormous dairy factory? Is that beef or horse? To dismiss such questions as ‘inconsequentials’ is bordering on arrogance. You may not care, but you should recognise that others do, and their interest or concerns are not irrelevant.

    It’s why you hear the word ‘provenance’ bandied around so much nowadays.

    1. Agreed.

      And even if I’m not taking a principled stand against multinational corporations, I still don’t like people trying to deceive me.

      (Obligatory tangent: I think the similarly deceptive faux-guest thing that certain British mega-regionals do is more damaging, though, since it makes it easier for them to maintain a local monopoly in their tied houses while presenting the illusion of choice, and hence reduces the need for them to keep their standards up in order to sell beer…)

    2. Perhaps it was strongly worded, but I really don’t think corporate structure is anything worth thinking about. If Shock Top and Blue Moon are better examples of the Belgian White Ale style than equivalent beers made by smaller breweries then so be it (and from my experience, both are pretty good in comparison). Production methods are most certainly not inconsequentials, I would never suggest as much, and indeed production methods more than influence the end product thus influencing the ultimate question as to whether a product is good or not.

      If we want full disclosure on labels, where does that stop? Should Widmer and Red Hook declare the minority ownership stakes that Anheuser-Busch has in them? Should Sierra Nevada tell us whether the bottle in my hand was brewed in California or North Carolina? Should Sam Adams tell us which contract brewery produced the Boston Lager I am drinking?

      I am not sure, given the intermingling of brewing traditions, ingredients and ideas, that provenance is a real thing in the beer industry – unless we talking about select styles rooted in a place, which would be the definition of provenance. Sure it is good to know who is brewing the beer you drink and how it being made, but that is no guarantor of quality.

  5. Faux-craft, faux-guest, faux bricks-and-mortar because you are actually a contract brewer, hand-made when you’ve got a neat computerized system controledl from a laptop, and … where does it end. We need to stop the obsession with larger brewers trying to sell more product that seems like “ours”, and get on with making great beer. Great beer will sell well. It’s the only guarantee of a long-term future in the business. Great beer is the future, not “macro-gak”, so the only question is, who will make it? Urquell is a great beer, we all know it, and it doesn’t matter who makes it. Certainly the trade description laws should be observed, no question, but short of that, let each company do what it well and may the best man win.

    Gary

    1. The deception leaves a bad taste in the mouth regardless of the end product, though. If the product is so good, why can’t people be honest about who produced it an where?

      And I don’t think that argument applies to faux-guests anyway – they actively distort the competitive landscape and make it easier to be successful as a mediocre brewery that owns a lot of pubs and harder to be successful as a good brewery that doesn’t.

      1. I certainly agree that the laws on labelling and producer identification should be fully observed and also that large brewers be frank about the origin of what they make regardless of legal nicety. I am addressing more the future, which is that many large brewers seem resolved to grow their craft-style products and the challenges – and opportunities – it poses for small brewers.

        Gary

        Gary

  6. beer bloggers are literally the only people who care about who owns the brewery. Everyone just care about what it tastes like.

      1. But that doesn’t mean it is a wise strategy vs. something that evolved “on the run” so to speak. The point has been made that creating a small brewery aura can be counter-productive by encouraging people who like the product to move on. Also, I believe sooner or later most people who care about the origin will find out, they learn from bar staff, other sources. And those who don’t care, probably the great majority, don’t care anyway. I think py is fundamentally right.

        Gary

    1. If that is true then why are the biggest selling beers in my local bottle shop those that are brewed in the local area?

      Why do companies spend so much on marketing?

      There are all sorts of reasons why people buy a product besides the taste

  7. “Should Widmer and Red Hook declare the minority ownership stakes that Anheuser-Busch has in them? Should Sierra Nevada tell us whether the bottle in my hand was brewed in California or North Carolina? Should Sam Adams tell us which contract brewery produced the Boston Lager I am drinking?”

    Yes!

    An individual might have a personal commitment to buy only from independent producers, or only products made in California, and, regardless of whether you or I think that is sensible, they should be given the information they need to exercise their choice.

    Otherwise, consumers are just letting themselves be pushed around.

  8. “An individual might have a personal commitment to buy only from independent producers, or only products made in California, and, regardless of whether you or I think that is sensible, they should be given the information they need to exercise their choice.”

    Is that not then their responsibility to educate themselves about the products they make a personal commitment to?

    1. Well, they have to at the moment — but why should they? If it doesn’t matter, why *not* state it on the packaging?

      1. Because that information is already out there, in the public domain, and for information like which of the big-craft breweries’ facilities produced your beer, common sense should suffice.

        1. Okay, to put it another way – if it doesn’t matter, why are Labatt running a $2.7M advertising campaign with the stated objective of maintaining the false image that their beer is from a small brewer?

        2. I wish this were true. I wish it was already out there. I spend a lot of time chasing who is making what on behalf of the Irish beer consumer — and I do it because there’s a real consumer demand for the information, not just among geeks and bloggers. The big surprise when I published my list was that the industry were glad to have it too: even insiders are frustrated about the lack of information on who makes what.

          And that’s just teeny-tiny Ireland. I know my colleagues in Belgium’s beer consumer organisation have it much, much worse.

          Together we’re pushing for a European regulation requiring the brewery address to go on all packaged beer. We shouldn’t have to, but that’s what it’s come to.

          1. Why is this not a simple matter? If you can’t tell where it’s from maybe you should not drink it. It’s the same think with food. If you can’t pronounce and ingredient, don’t eat it. With this jurisdiction on question, my Ontario, awash with contract “craft” brands made on large machines, each pretending to be micros – all phoney craft breweries consisting of a desk, computer and bank account – I have little sympathy for accusations of obfuscation when aimed at big beer.

  9. Getting back to the OP, one of BD’s gifts to the ‘craft’ image in Britain was edginess, first in the confrontational attitude they swiped from Stone and then in the ‘punk’ image. Even at three for a fiver in Sainsbury’s, BD bottles don’t say “new and different but fun” – they say “new and different and too good for them! and when I say them I might just mean you!” I’m not saying it’s going to stop them reaching a mass market – it evidently hasn’t – but it must make it that bit harder to reach anyone who isn’t a snotty teenager and doesn’t have happy memories of being one. (Which may be why they’ve changed the image.)

  10. I think people have complained primarily that beer doesn’t get the respect that wine does. Not that it is in need of “books, magazine columns, arcane lore, celebrities, vintages, sommeliers, a place at the dinner table, specialist tasting glasses and rituals”.

    If you visit wine-producing regions, wine there doesn’t have these peripheral phenomena either. The snobbery that we, in our cultural space, assume is intrinsic to wine culture is not in fact intrinsic to wine culture.

    1. Tell that to the Gallo brothers. I’m willing to bet the wine-producing regions of the States are awash with wine-snobbery, as much as more so than the rest of the country.

      But Americans are different. I once got into an online discussion of tea with some American friends. They knew vastly more about tea than I did (having been drinking it for my entire life). But they weren’t talking about (say) Brooke Bond vs PG Tips, or even Assam vs Ceylon; they were talking about first-flush Keemun blended with white Oolong, and precisely how long to infuse it. They probably got on to comparing thermometers eventually.

      More of everything, more attention to everything, more discrimination, connoisseurship and snobbery about everything. It’s the American way, apparently.

  11. Sorry I had a 14 hour workday yesterday and missed this. You must have been worried.

    1. “…sating one’s taste buds is all that matters…” Time to fish or cut bait as we say in Nova Scotia… or, as in Prince Edward Island, shit or wind your watch. A few weeks or months ago we were all abused with the defensive crap fest caused by the self-promoting faux food activist defending craft beers right to use production additives just like big beer. Drinkers really need to establish what it is they are defending. Until big craft and little micro can come up with a single reason to differentiate lighter and middling industrial brewing from large scale brewing, it is in fact only abound the taste buds and the pennies. Everything else is one degree or another of wishful belief.

    2. There is a large measure of Toronto-esque outrage in the stunned disbelief that a big brewery might spend a measly 2.7 million (Canadian) bucks on an ad campaign for a brand. We have had Shocktop on our shelves for a least three years to my recollection. I can think of one reputable craft beer brewed in Canada – Denison’s – the might slightly be affected by the ad campaign except (1) I can’t even buy it here at the other end of the same lake and (2) there is actually no real chance one less glass of beer gets sold. It’s like the annual stunned disbelief from the Big Smoke to my west that they did not win the championship in baseball, football, basketball and hockey no one noticing that their teams SUCK. If a craft brewer actually can’t compete with a beer as dull as Shocktop, well, it deserves to die. The marketplace will have spoken as surely as the league points column does.

    3. The saddest thing is that, as much reaction on social media has expressed, this beer and Blue Moon are the very ones that teach people there are flavours beyond macro gak. Call them gateways or bridges, they facilitate craft. What is really going on, however, is the concerted effort of big craft to hang on to the illusion that there is a difference between Shocktop and Sam Adams lager. Both made on shiny machines, with similar additives, marketed in similar ways and having a similar range of complexity. We will have more and more of this failed argument the more obvious it becomes. I am waiting for the next stage when big craft tells us that micro is no longer craft. It has actually begun with the recent call to arms to fight for sameness. God knows there is nothing as good as the same over and over. Hasn’t big macro taught us that?

    There.

  12. Alan –it seems to me that you (and Al, and maybe others) have worked yourself into a wilfully contrarian stance I just can’t get my head round.

    We’re not into black-and-white — some big beer is very good; we certaily don’t object to big beer doing ‘craft’; and some craft beer people act like dicks.

    But, on the whole, we’d like everyone to be held to the same standards of transparency, and reserve the right to criticise people who seek to exploit consumers, whether they’re sneaky craft brewers, or sneaky multinationals.

  13. I have to admit a bit of disbelief that you can only respond with an accusation that I and others are disingenuous or that my comments relate to your position when I know you don’t live in Toronto as the source of this discussion does – as I clearly stated. You will have to ask yourself more about that if you have further questions. Not my problem.

    Rather that pursue your thoughts about me, however, let’s instead ask you this just to test your stated preference for transparency: how much do you know about all the other products you buy? Your food, yours transportation expenses, your DYI home repair tools, the stuffing in your pillows. I’d bet, like the rest of us, much is manufactured in China, made by faceless multi-level multi-nationals or at least ambiguous or anonymous. We all live in the real world.

    In this case, in that real world it takes three seconds to establish who owns Shocktop. On the other hand, those amongst the offended seem to side with trade associations which actively hide the thin veneer of contract brewing, spread weirdly twisty PR campaign one after the other which seek to manipulate the discourse and in fact are led by national breweries which were once but only once actual small breweries. This argument out of these Canadian bloggers is the worst sort of jingoistic call to arms for in-transparency, The pot calling the kettle black. It could not be plainer. If observing and reporting on that fact is wilful contrarianism, je m’accuse! I plead guilty.

    [Now, if one were to file papers against me for hyperbole that might be a different matter…]

  14. Most products sold here do declare where they’re made, in big letters, on the packaging. (There are various weasely workarounds, of course.) Beer seems to be an exception to the rule.

    In general, I would like to know as much as possible about *all* the products I buy, especially the ones that are going into my mouth. British supermarkets know that plenty of customers feel this way, especially after the horse-meat business, which is why bags of potatoes here now come with the name of the farm printed on them. On a website FAQ somewhere is fine, I suppose, but on packaging would just save me some effort. I like and buy products that don’t make me jump through hoops to find out what I want to know.

    1. how long is that going to last before everyone loses interest again? a year? 2 years?

      Go tell a stella drinker that its not actually Belgian at all, but is contract brewed in Britain, then watch in surprise and amazement when he doesn’t give a fuck and orders another.

      1. If we only accepted developments that are of interest to a hypothetical average Stella drinker, beer would be in a pretty sorry state all round.

      2. Also, have you approached AB-InBev with your in-depth market insight? You could save them a couple of million by replacing their expensive advertising campaign with something more like “it’s produced in a factory and owned by a multinational but it’ll still get you tanked so shut up and give us money.”

        1. they already know.

          it amazes me how many people misunderstand the basic premise of advertising. you’re not supposed to believe it, you’re meant to pay attention just long enough to remember the name, because when in doubt, people go for something they recognise the name of.

    2. Fair enough. We have no EU to deal with. Our falsehoods are our own. But I still have to admit that I do not deeply care. When I drove into Peterborough, Ontario once and saw a breakfast cereal factory I realized I had no idea that’s where it came from. I suspect now it’s made in Mexico.

      We have not had food scares of any deeply affecting nature yet, on the other hand, have a marketplace which is not deeply embedded with concerns over supermarket bulk buy on the one hand or organics, GMOs or any other assurance of sanctity on the other. I noticed a far greater concern over such things with my UK family when recently visiting. [Me, I eat deer pals shot in the woods, too.]

      So, I admit you can get worked up about it to a degree too and I do spend a lot of my money on good quality food and drink – not to mention growing it myself. But that’s all a personal decision which I risk manage. I also had a Sapporo from Guelph, Ontario the other day. I buy US craft bee with Canadian malt and Euro-hops. I am aware that where something is made or appears to be made does not tell me where it’s constituent parts are from.

      How do I know where Shocktop is from? It’s branded for dingbats, for one thing, so I assume it is really from a PR committee room. But so are the beers from Stone, Dogfish Head and Boston Beer and a raft of other craft brewers. It’s all 1950s tinned Danish butter, product. If instead I want real beer, I go full a growler at the local micro.

  15. Danish canned butter is apparently a thing of the past, a 50’s cultural artifact as Alan noted, but Danish bacon (some canned, I understand – what is it with Denmark and cans?) is still a common purchase in the U.K. But is it all made in Denmark?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_Bacon

    (Just trying to inject a spirit of levity in an ardent discussion, one well-argued by all participants not least our blog hosts B&B!).

  16. If you lined up 1000 of the average person’s possessions and asked them to identify where each of them were produced and who by, how many do you think they would know?

    5? 10?

    why people think beer would be some kind of magical exception, god alone knows.

  17. They do the same thing here in the states with those beers and try to convince the uninformed they are drinking craft. The biggest thing is that shock top is a sickly tasting beer and more like orange juice. I don’t know how they can even call it beer, one of the worst I’ve had.

    1. Shock Top scored very well though in one blind tasting I saw where it was the sole macro beer represented. More than half the tasters were experienced tasters. For practical purposes I don’t think you can really separate it from the broad range of similar products made in craft brewing today.

      Gary

      1. Gary,

        I have found a similar result to be true of many blind tastings where the beer produced by mega breweries such as AB, MolsonCoors et al, have more than stood up to the samples from breweries identified as ‘craft’.

        Sure, the ‘crafty’ beer, to use the Brewers Association’s insulting and arrogant term, is rarely a world beater, but often it is a reasonable decent, perfectly drinkable beer. Which, at the end of the day is all that counts.

        1. Yes, people probably should try to separate the question of how a beer actually tastes from political issues, but that doesn’t equate to taste being ‘all that counts’.

          I might conclude that Shock Top tastes fine (I haven’t had it) but still choose not to buy it because I like the idea of a more diverse market with many smaller players; and/or because I object to the way it is marketed and packaged.

          Does this have to be reduced to black-and-white?

          1. I think it has to be reduced to it being all about the beer.

            Choosing not to drink a perfectly good beer based on the corporate structure, packaging, projected image, whatever is when it becomes black and white.

            I can’t stand BrewDog’s branding and image, but they make some decent beers that I am happy to drink.

  18. Ooops, pressed button too soon.

    For me, BrewDog, AB, MolsonCoors, and even my local Three Notch’d are all the same thing. Companies that make beer. Sure they are different sizes, have different images, but they all make beer, and they all have beers I am happy to drink. I happen to drink far more Three Notch’d beer because they make beers that I enjoy drinking most. If I didn’t like the beer I wouldn’t drink it, regardless of who makes it (and trust me there is awful shit ‘craft’ beer around here as well).

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