May 28, 2011

Carlsberg and the Idea of "Gender Neutral" Beer

Right, so you may have heard about Carlsberg and their latest little foray into a design-focused product. It's called Copen*hagen. It looks like this:
Okay, fine. Not really special, right? Maybe a little like a wine cooler, but it's European-focused, and minimalism (if that's what we want to call the black-on-white, sans serif text-based bland "design") plays better in Europe. 

Except this beer has an insidious, secret agenda. This beer is designed to worm its way into the hearts and minds and livers of a specific type of drinker. Can you guess what it is?

Here are the always-complimentary writers at TrendHunter (bold is mine):
The brewery’s in-house design team developed the identity for the new pale ale with a simplicity that most booze brands behind the bar would hardly dream of. Distinguishing these bottles as different, the image exudes a purity and a refreshing look that should be enough to attract consumers in search of their token beverages. With a young target consumer base, the Copen*hagen by Carlsberg will appeal to those who’ve yet to become creatures of consuming habit. The clean transparent packaging urges an appreciation of the drink within that most bottled beverages tend to mask.
Get it yet? Me neither. Young people? What? Maybe Carlsberg’s Jeanette Elgaard Carlsson can help us out.
We can see that there are a number of consumers, especially women, who are very aware of design when they choose beverage products. There may be situations where they are standing in a bar and want their drinks to match their style. In this case, they may well reject a beer if the design does not appeal to them. 
Oh. So it's a beer for you, if you have a vagina. According to Gothamist (linked via Alan), that's great!
Efforts to start marketing to non-straight male sensibilities are really ramping up. First there were those queer beers for boys who like boys who like their beers purple, and now Carlsberg has gone and announced a new beer, Copenhagen, aimed with women in mind. The wheat and rice beer, which the company calls "a real alternative to white wine and champagne," is the brewer's attempt to tap female consumers, who make up an estimated quarter of the market. Most important to this new beer, apparently, is style. Announcing the brew, Carlsberg emphasizes how well it will match your outfit.
Yes, that was written by a man.

Carlsberg market research team
I have, on this blog, written often about the efforts of craft breweries in considering women, and I have mentioned that I believe that to be important. In case I was ever unclear, this is not what I meant.

The craft blogosphere has been divided, with craft beer blogs, unsurprisingly, not been in love with Copen*hagen (an astericized name I find stupid, if you've keeping score). The Ladies of Craft Beer's Theresa Carpine took a pretty neutral stance but noted, "I don’t care if it matches my shoes, if that’s what Carlsberg thinks I’m worried about." Salon's Drew Grant throws out lots of sarcasm and wit, but it appears she feels actual analysis is above the product's worth:

Strangely, Carlsberg designers forgot the most important part when creating a beer for the fairer sex, which is that it must have zero calories and taste like carbonated strawberries.See, ladies, in this scenario, you are what you drink. Easy to embrace. A natural beauty that needs no makeup. Blond is the new black (sorry, brunettes!). This beer is speaking to your style, girlfriends! Guys, you can continue to drink whatever is cheapest or tastes best.

So we can see that some find the idea of a beer to match the purse a little demeaning (who could have guessed?). Of all the analysis, Suzanne Labarre of Fast Company probably was the most charitable:

High design as a gender equalizer, fighting a pitched battle against the Swedish bikini team. Contrast Carlsberg to Molson Coors, one of the big brewers marketing explicitly to women with a campaign called the Bittersweet Partnership. The partnership is aimed at making it “OK [for women] to love beer” and has a salmon-pink website complete with a flowery heart logo! Recipes! News updates (“It’s national doughnut week!”)! A Facebook promotion featuring the silky silhouette of four women and the question: “Are you a beer angel?”! We haven’t seen anything so patronizingly femme-y since the last time we watched a tampon commercial. It’s a promising development in an industry that’s spent too many years getting drunk on tired gender stereotypes.
Also: no.
I get her point, but I don't know how inclined I am to give credit for not being blatantly chauvinistic. I expect that firms are smart enough to not put everything in pink and talk down to customers. Yes, those expectations are often not met, but I still think it's all right to have them. Just because Carlsberg doesn't totally see female beer drinkers as some unthinking man's version of female beer drinkers, that doesn't mean this is respectful. If you're appearance-concerned enough to order your beverages in an attempt to coordinate, my guess is that you're trying to look good for someone else. So if you are saying that sometimes women want a beer that will look better with their outfit, isn't that sort of saying that you made a beer to help women be more attractive... and largely to men? 

Which is fine. Sometimes I want to look good for other people, too (though in my case the fix is likely a bit more involved than a minimalist beer label). For that matter, not liking beer is fine, too. But then order something you do like, like wine or a cocktail. Ordering a bad beer that you don't like because it looks better is patently dumb. And trying to convince someone to order a beer she does not like because it will make her look better is patently jerky.

Which brings us to the final possible reason Carlsberg is doing this, which is that they feel drinkers are sensitive to the stigma around beer in high society. In that case, they are trying to create a beer that a woman can order and still feel elegant. There are plenty of swank events where a bottle of even "classy" beer might not quite fit most people's vision of the stereotypical dress or gown. And I agree that's a problem (though thankfully one that's becoming less so every year). But if you want to solve that problem, then the long-term answer is to make people aware of the complexity, subtlety and refinement of craft brewed beer (all characteristics Copen*hagen surely lacks). 

Hey! We're classy, too!
Okay, okay, but that doesn't help when you're at the opera fundraiser and you need to drink something that will not make Rich Mr. Crustyface think you're a Philistine. And here is where I will tentatively give a small amount of credit to Carlsberg, though we are now far afield of their "look, it's a beer for people with no Y chromosomes!" strategy. There are very few beers packaged in such a way that they would not look out of place for an elegant, upscale person to drink at an elegant, upscale event. Copen*hagen could, perhaps, pull that off.

So, they may have found an interesting niche with design. The problem is that the niche in question is absolutely not what they seem to be marketing toward. The language above is all about women standing in bars, where so many better beverage options would be perfectly suitable. I do not understand this, but I am happy to be told I am wrong (I am, after all, not a woman). So, female readers, does this make your lady-senses tingle with anticipation? Or is Carlsberg as daft as they appear to be?

May 24, 2011

The Other Side of the Coin: Anti-Alcohol Campaigns

I know I promised a post on Saturday, but... like I said, bad month. The Curator will resume posting on his usual 2-3 times/week schedule after the holiday. But I wanted to make sure I got up at least one post this week. 

This one will be a little different. it's a look at three campaigns dedicated to getting people to drink less.  Since I am (not shockingly) opposed to some of the neo-Prohibitionist antics of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups of their ilk, I have mixed feelings about them, but I am also very much against drunk driving and excessive drinking (who isn't?) and, more importantly, the design is interesting. All three came to my attention via

First, let's look at the least subtle campaign, by MADD and the Montreal-based firm Über: 

Like I said, no points for subtlety. This is mostly what you see if you tune into anti-alcohol campaigns: lots of fear, oriented around a pun that is equal parts smugness and superiority. I have not seen numbers to suggest this works at all, and frankly I'm not surprised. Talking down to one's audience is rarely an effective way of doing anything, let alone changing behavior. Particularly stupid is the strategy; no one decides to drive drunk because he thinks it's safe (and, as we can see from these ads, clearly only men drive drunk). He drives drunk because he does not believe he is drunk. So a fear-based ad campaign positioned above the person and before the event seems very unlikely to make a difference. The photography is only okay.

With that as a baseline, let's look at a Corona campaign that, "Instead of focusing on the physical, it focuses on the emotional as stated in their slogan, ‘Drink responsibly. Or you’ll regret what you said last night.’"

From TrendHunter:
This phrase is cleverly illustrated by three regretful statements involving confessions of ballet lessons, love life slips and awkward work moments. The Corona Beer 2011 ad campaign was created by JWT in Madrid, Spain. It was art directed by Juan García-Escudero and copy written by Jaime Chávarri. Unfortunately, the talented photographer behind the Corona Beer 2011 ad campaign is currently unknown.
This has a little more cleverness and a lot more design prowess. The images are well-constructed and designed, with the idea of us dragging around the dumb things we've said when we had too many. And that feeling is so close to universal that I suspect this might actually affect more people than the MADD campaign above. All of us are familiar with the feeling of having said something we regret, and most of us are familiar with having alcohol involved in that feeling. If these ads were placed correctly (on coasters, say, or in the restroom at the bar) I could easily see someone seeing it, thinking, and deciding to have one or two fewer beers. I don't think it would do anything to a person who is already en route to getting bombed, but it could possibly make a social drinker have three beers instead of four. Again, though, only men do this.

Okay, onto the weirdest of the campaigns, from the Akzia Student Journal and M&C Saatchi, which uses a fear of gender identity to make its point:

As TrendHunter tells us:

...This publication has put out the message that consuming overindulgent quantities of booze can meddle with your hormones and more. One of the print ads features a man, posing nude as if in a prepartum portrait with a pregnant stomach. To elaborate on the idea pictured, text beneath the photo reads that “Excessive consumption of beer affects masculinity and leads to belly growth, enlarged lacteal glands and decreased potency.” Furthermore, a butch-looking woman is featured on the second print, reading that “Excessive consumption of beer affects feminity. It leads to an increase in facial hair and body odor because of an increase in male hormones.”
I am not sure if this is offensive, effective, neither or both. Certainly, the idea of losing one's gender identity is a potent one, and the images are suitably discomforting. And I like that there is some acknowledgement that women drink. But there is the whole "woman + beer = man" thing, that just seems to be off, like the worst thing a woman could do would be more "butch." Granted, these are not for US market, so there may be cultural differences, but at best they represent an antiquated vision of gender identity. Still, if one is trying to effect not just a change in a subject's behavior tonight, but an overall lifestyle choice, something like this is probably a better strategy, because it presents a change in one's entire life and person, rather than just the short-term consequences of one poor decision. One can always believe that tonight will not be the night she says something dumb, or that he will wreck his car driving home drunk, but if one accepts the message that drinking too much will mess with one's wo/manhood, that is not something from which one can run forever.

On the other hand, we've known for a long time our Western diets will kill us, and we haven't changed that because we love chicken wings and cake and we'll always start next month. This is aimed at students, so the hope, I assume is to get to them when they are old enough to make a change but have not settled into a lifestyle yet. Still, when I was a college student, I wasn't making great decisions with the rest of my life in mind.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as an effective anti-drinking campaign? What would it look like?

May 19, 2011

Bloggus Interruptus: The Blogger Meltdown Apology

Beerfriends, I am not going to lie.

May is kicking my ass up and down the street. It's bad, but it will all be over soon.

One of the lesser issues is that Blogger ate some posts I had written up for this week, including one on Anchorage Brewing that I was very happy about. Such is life, but I am sorry to anyone who wanted to get his or her beer design on. I promise I'll have new posts for you by Saturday.

In the mean time, if you like, you can read some of my thoughts on a guest post I did over at Pop Culture shrine The Inappropriate Thesaurus. Really, if you like comedy, culture, or just smart things in general, Dr. Carey's musings are something you want to consider adding to your RSS IV drip of words.

Also, you can always ogle the pretty beer pictures at Oh Beautiful Beer and Super Cool Bottle Caps.

May 17, 2011

Lots of Links and News, Including the Logo for Saint William Brewery

I've been saving some of this up too long, I suppose.
Cans offer an entire canvas for displaying the corporate and product brand in creative ways...Bottles use labels which are generally printed on a four-color offset press– a process with which most designers are intimately familiar. Can printing, for which there are only a handful of vendors in the U.S., uses spot color on special presses. Registration has been an issue...Almost every brewery is doing something noteworthy design-wise and, unlike some other industries, competition is extremely friendly... 
  • Both the Ladies of Craft Beer, who take on a chauvinistic Israeli beer campaign, and Liz aka "A2 Beer Wench," who runs Wolverine State Brewing, took on some of the always-interesting gender roles in craft beer. The LOCB is dead-on, if maybe beating up a straw man, and the discussion Liz puts up is frank and honest. The one thing I will say is that Liz' male counterpoint suggests people only drink craft beer for the flavor, and not marketing, a statement with which, as we know, I strongly disagree. Both worth checking out, though.
  • Many have linked the four great new Breckenridge ads parodying some of the sillier "innovations" in macrobrewing ads, like labels that get blue when they're cold and grooved necks to beer bottles. They're all available on the YouTube page of Cultivator Advertising and Design. This is my favorite:

  • These links posts are going to get rarer and rarer as I share more of this stuff via social media. If you like this stuff, you can usually find more at the Pour Curator Facebook page and on my Twitter feed.
  • Okay, last but not least, I reward your patience with new art. This is the new logo/label for a in-development New Jersey brewery, Saint William Brewery:
In full disclosure, the brewery owner, Wim Vanraes, did ask me what I think of this design, and I gave him some feedback. I actually really like it, especially for the Belgian-style brewing Wim plans to be doing (he is originally from Belgium). The soft earthtone of the backdrop, red-tinged Gothic window, and classic historic font are all reminiscent of some of the Trappist breweries (think Westmalle or Rochefort). Yet Saint William is clearly having some fun with the smirk and red cheeks, and the sword and brewer's paddle are a nice juxtaposition. 

William in the window would be the logo, obviously, without the grain and tan backdrop. It also nicely connotes a startup brewery; it's not overly slick or serious or professional, which, for a startup relying on its indie persona, makes sense  My feedback to Wim was that this was a good startup design that he probably would want to revisit if the brewery is successful in about five years or so. 

May 10, 2011

From Marketing to Beer with Dave Gilliland of Ruckus Brewing

If you're not from Eastern Pennsylvania, a quick note of background is in order.

There once was a brewery called Legacy Brewing. They made good beer in Reading, PA, including a beer called the Hedonism red, which carried label - by artist Deric Hettinger - so risque that it caused a kerfuffle that made national news. Also, that little brouhaha inspired one strange young man to look deeply into the art being created in his beloved craft beer industry, and then to make a show of it, and then, eventually, to start a blog on it.
Sadly, Legacy was not around for all of it. Due to circumstances that remain murky, Legacy closed its doors, taking with it the Hedonism Red, the Hoptimus Prime DIPA, the Midnight Wit, and the reanimated brand Reading Premium, a cheap mass-market light lager that had nonetheless been welcomed back to the city by the many denizens who had grown up with it. I won't speculate or rumor-monger, except to repeat (as I have several times now) that brewing is a cash-intensive business where it is easy to have lots of demand and no money.

Then, a few months ago, we started hearing that these beers might come back, under the name Ruckus. That seemed particularly strange to me, since I knew the name Ruckus as the marketing firm where artist Dave Gilliland had done the later Legacy label art (such as that of the Hoptimus Prime). But they were a creative firm in New Jersey, not brewers, right?

After some time (they've understandably been a little busy), Gilliland agreed to talk with me and give me some details on Ruckus Brewing Company. Hope you enjoy it!

A marketing firm moving into craft beer? In a nighttime phone conversation with Ruckus Brewing Company's Dave Gillland, it becomes very quickly clear that he does not think this is as strange as I do.

"We did all their marketing and we started producing all their labels," Gilliland says of the now-defunct Legacy Brewing Company. "When the economy went south in 2008, they couldn’t sustain their overhead anymore"

He says all this with a matter-of-fact somberness that has become common for anyone who works with businesses during the Great Recession. I work with small businesses, and so I'm familiar enough with this tone of voice that I know the connotations; these things happen, even to businesses and breweries we love.

"We saw a good product and we didn’t want it to die," he says, and if one didn't know better, one might almost assume that was natural response for a marketing firm whose client goes under in the worst economy of the last 100 years.

Ruckus Brewing Co., born of Ruckus Marketing, purchased the intellectual property for Legacy's craft beer lines, but started with the light lager Reading Premium as a way to provide a stable revenue stream on which to rebuild the craft line.

"It already has its own followers," he says. Living in Reading right now, where it has reappeared on shelves, I am aware of this, but also of the confusion that has swirled around this brand, which has gone through several owners since it stopped local production in the 1970s.

Okay, I ask, so you're growing this brand, but where and how?

"We want to be everywhere, but right now we’re focusing on Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware," he says. "We have Reading Premium up in the Boston area and it’s doing real well up there."

Gilliland speaks about distribution and answers my questions politely, but I can not get away from the sense that I am boring him.

I ask if they are worried about overextending. He's just rattled off five potentially large markets, which is about four more than most would start with. It is as if I have just asked a professional baseball player if he is concerned about getting splinters from his bat.

"The beer is being made fairly quickly," he assures me. "We’re not taking on too much at once."

In the course of conversation, I become more and more confused. I am a geek for the ins and outs of the beer business, which I expected to be a source of excitement for a marketing firm, but all Gilliland wants to do is talk about, well, beer. 

For example, he talks at length about the different label designs they are releasing for Reading Premium. To celebrate the brand's 125th birthday, they are releasing a different label every month.

"We wanted to make it so it was almost like a collector’s item," he says. "Some of these labels are really cool labels and different from anything that’s being done today"

His excitement grows when he talks about the various hands through which Reading Premium passed before Legacy.

"They didn’t have any passion about it," he says, "and that’s something we do have. We learned about the brand and the history and what it did for the city of Reading."

It is fairly rare to hear that level of passion espoused about Reading from, well, anyone. To hear it coming from a marketing firm in New Jersey is more than surprising.

"We’re not coming in to change the brand," he continues. "We want to keep it authentic and we want the people of Reading to still love it."

It takes me a while, but I realize that, at least for Gilliland, who lived in Kutztown for five years, the building of Reading Premium is a personal dream.

"I can say from my point of view… growing up I always wanted to do something with beer,"  he says. "I always wanted to design a beer label or produce a beer commercial and just be involved with it."

For those of us used to craft beer, where conversations start and end with concepts like quality, authenticity, and scarcity, this emotional dedication to a brand that used to belong to someone else is something unexpected and different.

"I do know the area and I do know the people," he says, confirming that he is not alone at Ruckus. "I think just having the passion and the drive has really helped us and the company."

But how passionate can they be? I press him on the launch of Ruckus Brewing as a business decision.

"I don’t think we’re viewing it as a way to get rich… it’s something new to us, too. It’s a challenge and its exciting and we’re ready to take it on," he says, remaining stubbornly nonchalant and reasonable. "The main thing is that we have fun with it."

Ruckus may have launched a brewing company, but it is clear they have no plans to give up dual cheerleader-reality check roles of a marketing firm. Gilliland's title, for example, is still "Creative Vice President," a position one would find on the staff lists of few brewing companies.

So how will all of this work?

"Everything is done out of house... Right now it’s contract brewed through Lion brewery," Gilliland confirms.
"One of the guys from Legacy still works with us and makes sure that the recipes are still the same."

That would be Mark Hummel, Legacy's old brewmaster.

When it comes to launching the craft lines of Legacy, Hoptimus Prime is on shelves in New York and selling well. 

"We're getting calls every day about availability," he says. "Right now everybody’s taking to it."

I try and gently ask if they are concerned about the lack of control with contract brewing, or if the are worried that some will see it as inauthentic, but Gilliland says the relationship with Lion is great and the quality has been up to their standards.

At that point, I have to ask if there are plans to build or brew in their own facility.
"I think it’s too early to say, but [if the resources were there] we’d… definitely look into doing it."

So much of America's first and second waves of craft beer are about the people and their origin myths; Sam Calagione's brewpub in Delaware, Vinnie Cilurzo buying his award-winning brewery from Korbel, Jim Koch going door to door with Sam Adams. There is variance, but they all start with a man and his brewing.

If they succeed, Ruckus' story will be a decidedly different one; it will be about a group of guys who fell in love with a brand and the business of beer.

Talking to Gilliland, one can not help but get the feeling that this is at least partly the shape of things to come. Some will love it, some will hate it, but this generation of brewing company owners know that, whatever else they might be, beers are brands. To them, who actually puts the grains and water into tanks is not an essential part of what a beer is. If the brand and beer is reliable, high-quality, and stands for something, people will drink it. At least, this is my perception of this different model.

In craft beer, contract brewing is often a dirty word. Of course, one wonders if that is truly a philosophical belief that will hold up after something we like is contract brewed. What if it, like so many other industrial technologies, is taboo until it is done well? After all, it used to be that blending beer batches was absolutely a no-go; now, many larger craft breweries engage in the practice, which helps them control quality, just as it has for macrobreweries for a long time.

And Ruckus is not Pabst. This is a group of people apparently committed to a community (albeit one where they do not live), committed to beer, and committed to a decidedly craft business strategy. The fact that they have contracted people who know how to brew seems like it shouldn't be a cardinal sin.

After all, the people who work at contract breweries are not incapable; what if they are just as skilled as brewers a place like Ruckus might hire if they had the means? How is it different to subcontract your labor, rather than hire it outright? And does it really matter what bricks and mortar house the fermenters?

Put another way: If a beer brewed in a New Jersey warehouse by Ruckus employees tasted identical to a beer produced by the employees of Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA, under the leadership and foresight of a skilled brewmaster... should we care?

I do not pretend to have the answer to these questions, but I believe they will very much become a part of the next ten years of craft beer. Outfits like Ruckus, that are dedicated to making beers with character and running a good business, will fight for space on shelves and in our fridges, and the question of what it means to be a craft brewery will only get thornier.

In the meantime, I can safely say that many people in Reading and beyond are watching the Ruckus endeavor with a great deal of interest. Whether or not the men at Ruckus find it it fascinating, almost every craft beer person I speak to is curious about what this new type of brewing company is and, if it will work, how it will work.

May 6, 2011

The Session #51: The Great Beer and Cheese Off

All right, so I was maybe a little too excited about this Session.

I really like craft beer, and I really like cheese. I was once posed the question if I would rather give up sex or cheese, and I'll say the choice was very tough.

So we got the three cheeses Jay recommended, plus three more. We got a team together, and I chose two beers for each cheese. Then we tried them both with the cheeses, and picked the better fit to our palates. Sometimes, neither worked, so then I just made a suggestion.

Oh yeah, and most of this pairing/tasting occurred while listening to a fantastic live performance by Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King put on by the wonderful people at 2nd Story Blues.

The Prequels:

Cheese: KH DeJong Edam
Beers: Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale and Stoudts Karnival Kolsch
Taste: It was sharper than expected, so that already had me iffy on my choices. Then the Samurai exploded and clearly had gone bad on the shelf, so it was an inauspicious beginning. Thankfully, it went uphill from here.
Verdict: Victory Headwaters Pale (see below)

Cheese: KH DeJong Gouda
Beers: Brooklyn Lager and Victory Headwaters Pale
Taste: Very creamy, and it really worked very well with the Brooklyn. Which was nice, because that meant I got to try the Headwaters with the sneaky-sharp Edam and boom, two pairings.
Verdict: Brooklyn Lager

Cheese: Triple Cream Brie (brand unknown)
Beers: Laughing Dog Abbey Trippel and Cigar City Maduro Brown
Taste: Holy crap creamy, and way too strong for the triple. The brie rolled over it so forcefully that I was worried, but there was no reason to be. Maduro plus this cheese makes a savory, umami sundae in your face.
Verdict: Cigar City Maduro

The Big Three:

Cheese: Cave Maytag Blue
Beers: Troegs Troegenator and Unibroue Maudite
Taste: Wonderful, crumbly, sharpness. Maudite I bought on clearance, and it had gone bad (stunner), but the Troegenator was just an okay pairing. This cried for a sour cherry flavor, though.
Verdict: Kasteel Rouge

Cheese: Carr Valley 10-year WI Cheddar
Beers: Heavy Seas Black Cannon and Mission Brewery DIPA
Taste: Huge sharpness that crushed the beers I had chosen. Roastiness of the Black Cannon was a better fit, but I tend to think this needs a serious hop machine, like a west coast IPA.
Verdict: Green Flash West Coast IPA

Cheese: Cypress Humboldt Fog
Beers: Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot and Left Hand Fade to Black Vol. 2 Smoked Baltic Porter
Taste: Very complex, creamy and subtle but with sharp blue notes. The barleywine was too strong for the cheese by quite a bit, and I was scared both would overpower the beer, but the smokiness of Fade to Black actually brought out some interesting notes in the cheese. A surprising match, but valuable for the change of flavors.
Verdict: Left Hand Fade to Black Vol. 2 Smoked Baltic Porter

May 3, 2011

Business Models, the Dangers of Politics, and the Philadelphia Beer Market with Prism Brewing Co.'s Rob DeMaria

Some of you may remember a Session from months past where I was going to interview one of "the new kids" in my brewing area, Prism Brewing Co. As you may remember, that fell through.

Until now.

This weekend, I got the chance to do the slightly belated interview with Prism's Rob DeMaria. I found the conversation, which touched on everything from label requirements to business models to branding pitfalls, a fascinating look into the business of craft beer, which is often about things far less sexy than those of us outside it might imagine. Hope you enjoy it!

The first thing that jumps out in a conversation with Rob DeMaria is how thoroughly he has thought about the business of being in the Philadelphia area beer scene.

For one thing, he knows he's not alone.

"I love that there's a lot of us coming up," he says, comparing it to a new generation, "but some of us are going to make it and some aren't."

Part of that is the unique beer geography of Philadelphia and its environs, where established German heritage breweries collide with experimental nanobreweries and exotic imports to compete for shelf space.

"Philadelphia as a market is very interesting," DeMaria says. "The plus is the minus."

The plus, of course, is that the consumer is "educated, loves craft beer, and hungry for more beer... they have examples of the best, most stylistically accurate beers in the country." That's not just Philadelphia's great native beer scene, but the fact that beers from Russian River to the uncountable Belgian brands flow in from outside the region. That, of course, is its own downside, since a new operation  is "going up against not only the flavor but the brands of these breweries."

The other downside, though, is that this leads to "a rotational attitude in bars," where the bar owners and managers are compelled to keep rotating beer, leading to very unpredictable traffic and accounts.

Especially in draught-only breweries like Prism, where timely inventory turnover is vital, the delay in production time leads to what supply chain people call the "bullwhip efftect." If DeMaria has to have several batches ready to meet demand, he has to know that weeks ahead of time, when brewing begins, or else he might leave people thirsty, or he'll produce too much beer that will sit on a warehouse floor.

While some breweries use lack of supply as a tactic, DeMaria - like many startup breweries - has no desire to pass up thirsty mouths. That was part of why Prism contract brewed for a year or so before launching in their own space recently (the brewpub in North Wales will open soon). Despite the lack of control over beer quality, the ability to get to market was important for a brewery that wants to be a fixture in the region.
The next step is clear to DeMaria.

"It's about creating a brand,"  he says, and specifically means several brands. "The beers are the brands, not the brewery."

For many consumers, the specific beer is that which has the taste we crave, whether it is Dogfish Head 60 minute or Brooklyn Lager or even - gasp - Bud Light. DeMaria says the industry is rife with proof that the desire for a beer that pleases our palate is superior to any loyalty we might feel to a business. That, combined with a free spirit that leads Prism to go by the tag "Live Unfiltered," drives their creation of beers with innovative flavors and ingredients, but with a level of quaffability that could appeal to even the session lovers among us.

For Prism, a brewery so design-conscious that it is named for a light-refracting device, selling those beers will be heavily tied to a visual identity.

While the beer quality is first and foremost what will define the brewery, DeMaria acknowledges that "there's something to be said for the proper amount of marketing and how you present yourself,"

The artist Prism uses is North Carolina illustrator Pete McDonough, an old college friend whose concept drawings were so good, Rob said, that "I said I'm going to invest in continuing to [have him create new labels]"

Of course, even a brewery that thinks in terms of branding like Prism can be caught by the law of unintended consequences.
"I didn't even think it was going to be an issue," DeMaria says, shaking his head.

The original name for their light (5.5 abv), tea-infused pale ale was a long Chinese word for "celebration of tea," but DeMaria felt that the beer was neither big enough, abv-wise, nor "fancy" enough to fit a long, difficult-to-pronounce Mandarin word.

So being a history buff and loving the idea of fun in beer, they settled on "Tea Party."

"Tea Party" came from two things, according to DeMaria. The first was Philadelphia's history with the Tea Party (the original, Boston one, not the modern-day right-wing group). The marines who marched to Boston, the independence movement, and even the "Don't Tread on Me" flag, all have Philadelphia roots. Also, he noted of the people at Prism, "We're kind of nonconformists [and we try to keep things] a little bit revolutionary," so the name seemed like a good fit.

As one might imagine, not everyone picked up on the original reference. DeMaria remembers a tasting on Memorial Day 2010 where someone came out specifically for the Tea Party and asked to have a picture taken with him and the beer. While a little strange, DeMaria did not fully understand the breadth of the name's multiple uses until the next day, when he saw his picture on political nexus

I told Rob I have several friends who would not drink Prism beer because of the beer's name, which they took as a sign of support for the right-wing group, despite the fact that there is nothing to indicate that in the marketing. He said one bar that loved the beer sent it back to him, citing a disagreement with the philosophy.

For DeMaria, who is not in any way affiliated with the Tea Party of Sarah Palin and Pat Toomey, the potential loss of customers over an ideology to which he does not even ascribe, was too much.

"We changed the name because it was divisive," DeMaria said. "People saw it as a political statement, and it never was."
A few weeks ago, I went to a Philadelphia-area bar at 10:30 am and waited for 40 minutes to pay $6 for a 4 oz tasting of Pliny the Younger. I did this so that I would never have to do it again, but every time an ultra-rare keg makes its way to the environs, such lines are commonplace and even expected.

While he recognizes the marketing and monetary value of such scarcity-induced mania, DeMaria's vision for Prism's beer is very different.

"I don't ever want people to stand in line to get our beer," he says.

DeMaria had a blood orange summer blonde ale he was going to call Blood Light, and he envisioned the C-and-D letters from Anheuser-Busch - and the free publicity - that would follow.

"I could take this beer as a publicity stunt, or I could take this beer seriously."

Using many different ingredients and working with different flavors, DeMaria says he knows Prism must "be careful not to become a gimmick."

Part of working with the identity of a brewery that pushes the envelope is learning on the fly, according to DeMaria. That can be everything from recipes to understanding that describing beer identities in a way that people will understand.

"My beer doesn't really meet style guidelines," DeMaria says, and explains that federal regulations, of all things, helped him realized the value of description over style.

Whenever you use a different ingredient in commercial brewing, you have to submit a statement of process to the federal regulators, who tell you what to put on a label. That led to "Ale brewed with honey" that currently identifies the Bitto Honey style (previously, it was identified as an IPA).
For those expecting an American-style cascade hop bomb when they see "IPA," the Bitto Honey would be a very jarring beer. It tastes more like a Hopslam, with layers of flavor and hops balanced by the notes of honey. The new description directs drinkers to expect the right things, which means they are happier with the beer.

For example, the Prism beer My Love is Evil was first identified as a "Strawberry Jalapeno Brown Ale" until DeMaria realized that misled drinkers into expecting a sweet and spicy sip, rather than subtle flavors for which he had aimed. Now it's called a "brown ale brewed with strawberries and jalapenos."

"You learn these things as you go through the process," he says.

With a few brands launched, DeMaria's future focus is on a regional presence. He's resisted calls for beer that would take him outside of Prism's current focus area. With breweries that have overextended and either had to pull out of states or go under entirely, he's keenly aware of the dangers of ignoring manageable growth strategies.

For Prism, though, that has to do with demography in addition to geography.

"We're trying to grow the craft beer market," he explains. "If you're going to grow the craft beer market, you have to appeal to more than just craft beer drinkers."

That means walking a fine border between beers that please the core group of craft devotees and beers that can be enjoyed by someone who might prefer a Coors Light, a Sauvignon Blanc, or a Kambucha. 

"Are we going to do a double IPA? Yes, because you have to." But, DeMaria says. "We're really trying to ride that line."

DeMaria is quick to acknowledge that all of his views are a function of where he is now, and that in a year's time he may have changed them completely or be the one who did not make it in the new, competitive market. But speaking with him on topics from his MBA to GABF style guidelines, one gets the sense that would be unlikely.

Almost all brewers have passion for beer, and most have passion for making beer, but few have the obvious passion for customers that seems to define DeMaria's dream for Prism. As he's navigated politics, business models, new markets, and unpredictable distributors and bars, he remains fervent about the anti-elitist role for craft beer in America: "Beer is for people."

Long-term, any growth for Prism, according to DeMaria, would be a form of multi-domestic strategy, where new brewery locations would be added for expansion, rather than expansion of one site to leverage great economies of scale. This would allow more control over the beer's freshness, yes, but also an ability to be a part of whatever community Prism might inhabit, just the same way they plan to be a fixture in Eastern PA.

May 2, 2011

A Little Bit of a Teaser, and A Little Bit of Commentary

So a bit of shameless self promotion: I've got some good posts lined up over the next couple of weeks, including:

  • An interview with Rob at Prism Brewing on business models in craft beer and the danger of branding
  • An conversation with Josh Lampe at SSM Creative about what it's like to do a renovation of a 15-year-old brewery brand
  • The Session post on a massive beer and cheese pairing
  • A conversation with Ruckus Brewing about what it's like to go from the marketing business to the craft beer business
Like I said, I'm pretty pumped. Hope you'll find it interesting.

Then there's the rest of the world.

Ed note: What's about to follow is largely unrelated to beer. Stop reading unless you care what I think about world politics.

I used to be a political blogger, and, like a lot of people, I woke up today to some stunning news that left me feeling our world is just a little bit different. I refer, of course, to Osama bin Laden's death.

Like many of you, I've seen the coverage and social media-fueled discussion. I've seen beer bloggers chime in with a small acknowledgement or a gleeful toast. I've seen the videos of the Philadelphia fans at the baseball game chanting U-S-A as if we'd just won a really huge hockey game. I've seen the many jokes about how people will not believe Osama is dead unless they see his long-form death certificate.

I love this country, and I don't mourn Osama bin Laden's death. His actions and choices were despicable, and even his sympathizers would agree he knew their likely cost. There was no better ending to his story available than the one he got, and I hope for some who have played roles - no matter how passive or tangential - in the often-nebulous War on Terror, this affords some element of closure. 

But I can not share in joy, or raise a toast, to his killing. Even if we agree that the death of one man after ten years is an achievement or a type of victory, I think it's important to remember that one huge thing that separates good guys from bad guys is how one feels about violence - even necessary violence. Bin Laden rejoiced in the death he caused, and too often, large portions of the world rejoiced with him, seeing well-executed thuggery as vindication that some divine presence was stamping the murderers with approval. The SEALs and men who killed bin Laden and others this weekend were not murderers, and the reason is that they did not wish to kill anyone for their own reasons, but because the path to a safe, stable world is often paved with unfortunate actions.

This killing was necessary, and bin Laden made it necessary. I'm glad it's over. But the fact that we were capable killers no more means that God smiles on us than a few hijackers meant God smiled on al Qaeda. If we enjoy divine favor, it must be because we do not enjoy the violence we must, from time to time, undertake.

As I sit here in the comfort of the first world, watching a large television with my cat and enjoying a Southern Tier Hop Sun, planning the next few days of a pretty good life and daydreaming of adventures in a country full of beautiful and educated women, I can't help but think of how many people, had they lived under the caliphate bin Laden planned, would have been subjected to a life without the things that bring me such joy. I can't help but also think all the people whose lives were ended or ruined by the wars resulting from bin Laden's actions. So bin Laden's death is not for me a cause of celebratory joy, but instead a grim reminder of how much damage just one person can do if he starts to believe that his personal desires for vengeance are so sanctioned by God that any collateral suffering is worth it.

It's a better world today, but we've got a long way farther to go before I'll feel comfortable celebrating.