November 29, 2012

Big News From the Pour Curator

Hi there, Beerfriends.

So, a couple weeks ago, I teased a major announcement or something equally PRific in terminology. And I guess I'm about ready, since many of my readers already know about it.

A couple of times on here and as a commenter on other blogs, I've mused about the bloggers and homebrewers that "go pro." That is to say, they turn their passion into a livelihood, either as a brewery employee or some other paying role in the beverage industry to which we devote so much time.

Well, I'm doing it.

Early next year, I'll be launching The Colony Meadery with a friend and business partner.

We'll be creating bold and experimental meads (beverages produced from fermented honey) at a manufacturing incubator space in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

It's terrifying.

Also, awesome.

If you're interested in supporting us, we'll be launching a Kickstarter campaign after the new year. For the moment, you can sign up for our d-list on the page, or you can like us on Facebook to keep up to date with everything. If you've done this before and have advice, I'd love to hear it. If you're local, we'll continue pouring in pre-launch like at the Brew Works festival this weekend. Either way, we'll be trying hard to get delicious mead into your face very soon.

We're still in pre-launch, so we have a placeholder site. As for design... as you might imagine, I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so we're still tinkering. Fortunately, we have some time, because federal and state approval takes months.

As for this blog, this means that I'll have more time in the next few months to write every other week or so. Also, I'll be continuing to blog every so often for Men's Health and I'm also pleased to announce that I'll be doing a monthly column for the Gazette van Detroit on Belgian influences in American beer.

I'll try and keep all of this stuff separate, so as not to bore the folk that come here for the art, but I did want to thank you all. The success (such as it is) of this blog is one of the things that has given me the confidence to try this crazy venture. I hope to see you all at our opening in Spring.

November 19, 2012

The Curious Case of Budweiser's Project 12

This summer, Budweiser, the best-selling beer brand in the world, did something different. They called it Project 12.

"Project 12" started as an internal code name for the project, referring to the 12 US breweries operated by Budweiser (the flagship beer of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) and the brewmasters who operate them. Each brewmaster was encouraged to brew a beer that was not Budweiser or Bud Light or any of their other flagship beers. Instead, they were asked to create their own recipes. The only requirements were that brewers use the traditional Budweiser yeast and that the brews be equal in "quality and drinkability"to the flagship beers.

12 beers was a number that was "logistically difficult" to research for marketing, so the 12 beers were narrowed to six, and then sampled at events throughout the country over the summer in blind, unbranded tastings. The customers chose the three that ended up in six packs, which hit shelves this month. Each beer was identified by the zip code in which the brewery resides. The three beers that eventually won this crowdsourced contest were a golden pilsner from St. Louis (63118), a deep amber lager from Los Angeles (91406) and a Bourbon Cask Lager from Williamsburg, VA (23185).

A couple months ago, the folk at Budweiser were kind enough to speak with me about this project, which fascinated me for a number of reasons.

To begin with, one has to understand what a titanic brand Budweiser is. Whether or not one likes it or the product, it is one of the few brands that deserves the word iconic, and their beer empire has been built on a fanatical devotion to consistency and quality control.

As brewmaster Jane Killebrew said: "The hardest part of my job is to ensure that every Budweiser, quality wise, delivers consistency."

This is not a small thing when one produces about 100 million barrels of beer in different locations worldwide. And when one has a reputation for just that, I had to ask, why start trying to showcase differences in facilities?

"We wanted to celebrate both [the geographies and the brewmasters] within the context of the brand," said Killebrew, but she reinforced that was not the same as the breweries celebrating any type of individuality or difference. If that message sounds a bit vague and heady, you're starting to feel how I did.

"The differences are the personalities," Budweiser Vice President and Brand Manager Rob McCarthy explained. Those personalities don't showcase differences, though, when they produce Bud Light in different facilities.

So we have a product that is undetermined, and all that we know about it is that it will be under the same brand as the most consistent product in the world, and that product will really be a variety of three products, all of which are chosen not in focus groups behind closed doors, but by random people at blind tastings.

"We're kind of rolling with it," Killebrew said.
Budweiser Project 12 case design

If you were to talk to some people at big marketing firms and see how often they suggest "rolling with it" as an overall strategy for massive corporate clients, you would not find many instances. Which was why, at that moment, I had to stop and blurt out that none of this sounded like a big brewery at all.

To which McCarthy responded: "Exactly."

Lest you think Budweiser is being untrue to itself, I was told in no uncertain terms that the brand and company knows what they are.

"We're not trying to be craft. We're not trying to hide from Budweiser at all," Killebrew said. "Budweiser can never be a craft [beer]... We're a big brand and we're proud of that."

Fair enough. And I was also assured that this is in no way an attempt to convince a certain stripe of consumer that Budweiser is really a small brewery at heart.

"We know that there are a few that reject big brands. This is not for them."

Most product lines are launched from major companies after many months and millions of dollars in painstaking testing, focus groups, and strategic branding.

Project 12 is, of course, not doing any of those things. I asked if there were perhaps some higher ups in marketing or other departments that had voiced concerns about this. While no one on the call would go into much detail about it, it was clear that not everyone at Budweiser was in love with the less-controlled approach.

"This whole process started out as very collaborative from the very beginning, which was a bit of a departure for us," Killebrew said.
The team behind the Budweiser Williamsburg offering.

The use of a public crowdtesting process for product development seemed a big and uncertain effort more befitting BrewDog than Budweiser. But Killebrew did note that Budweiser's big seller Shock Top was developed through a "regional draft", a sort of limited pilot program to develop new beers. Those familiar with competitor MillerCoors might have visited the Sandlot brewery in Coors Field, where many beers are poured and tried by consumers. Some of those beers go on to nationwide launches under names like Blue Moon. So the departure may not have been as immense as one might think for Budweiser, and Killebrew placed it in a larger context of an increasingly bottom-up NPD (businesspeak for new product development)

"The company has really embraced, for new product development, that the consumer is really the boss," Killebrew said.

Of course, there's a difference between regional pilot testing and a nationwide bus tour with six unnamed beers for people to try, especially when navigating any corporate bureaucracy.

"Trying to get a group of people to agree on anything is a challenge," Killebrew acknowledged, but said the process has been helpful in many ways. "It's been a great way to get customer feedback,"

The rise of crowdsourcing (getting large numbers of individuals to aid in decision-making processes) has been accepted as a good way of building buzz and investment in the potential consumers, but it's usually for smaller startups and the tech world.

"The idea that Budweiser could do something like this.... consumers are open to it, and that really gave us creative [freedom]," McCarthy said.

There's also the element of competition, and encouraging debate between consumers as to which of the Project 12 beers they prefer. Not to mention, of course, the brewmasters who competed (and then collaborated) for spots in the final three.

"There is a lot of smack talk going on," Killebrew said.

Indeed, I had a few knowledgeable friends taste the initial six with me, and there was divergent opinions on most of the brews. One could consider that a negative, but a group of craft beer geeks disagreeing on products by Budweiser is in itself a sort of triumph.

The one thing I feel compelled to add is that everyone I spoke with about the project had a sort of disbelieving excitement about it, as if they themselves were not exactly sure how this had happened. Now, all the usual caveats apply: I'm just one guy, everyone was on the phone, people can fake things, I may be misreading, etc. But the sense of sincerely delighted surprise was very real, and they were aware of it. As McCarthy said:

"We're really having a good time with it."
Budweiser Project marketing piece


Okay, so I feel like there are two parts to this story. One is what I tried to do above, which is convey what Budweiser is doing, and how different it is. One could argue that even something like this is decidedly corporate, but I don't see how anyone could say it's not a gamble/experiment/departure.

The second part is analysis: Is it a good thing that Budweiser has encouraged - under the flagship brand - its brewmasters to express individuality, tie that to the physical plant where they work, and then release a mixed six pack of three beers that are at the very least quite distinct from Budweiser.

Before we get to that, some notes:

  • Original packaging concept work was done by New York firm JKR, and then finished in-house. For what it's worth, I think it's solid if not great. It definitely makes it appear as a limited-release, small-batch item.
  • If you're interested in seeing my opinions on the beers, you can see them at Men's Health here (spoiler: I liked the two darker ones, did not like the pilsner).
  • Here's how two of the beers poured in non-publicity stills. I have to say, the images Bud released are fairly accurate visually.

Budweiser Project Pilsner (St Louis)Budweiser Project Amber Lager (LA)

Okay, so is this a good idea?

First, this comes in the greater context of all the macrobrews getting more "craft" in their product mix, or at least trying to tap into the success of the movement. Fortune did a nice piece recently which had many craft brewers complaining that launching a product line and concealing its parentage (say, Shock Top, which does not mention its parent company of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) is deceitful. Obviously, this isn't that, but it goes to a deeper question in craft beer, which is if and why a craft beer lover must hate beer made by big breweries.

For a while, the party line was that big breweries make bad beer. This was why they were bad, because they deprived us of flavor and took up tap space with their big marketing dollars that sold an inferior product. I never bought this argument; of course macrobrews lack flavor, but many people don't want flavorful beer, and it's hard to call a business bad for meeting demand. Regardless, if they start making better beer and listening to consumers, then everyone who said this should start liking ABI, right? I won't hold my breath.

Some say that the big breweries are bad because they are big. This size leads them to consider capital above quality and costs about integrity. There has been plenty of arguing about what constitutes "big," but Sam Adams, the largest craft brewer, made a bit over 2 million barrels last year at plants throughout the United States. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are expanding to a massive new facilities in Asheville, NC. That's a bit of a hike from their homes in Chico, CA and Fort Collins, CO, respectively. Once a business has multiple facilities in different locales, quality control becomes the number one job of brewery employees, and arguably it does so well before that. Until we can agree on what "big" is, I'm not prepared to accept that a beer must be bad because the brewery that made it is so successful it needs lots of capacity. Also, that's just a really stupid argument.

These beers will not be ones I set out to find at bars, but I'm not really the target market. Arguably, these are aimed at Bud drinkers, trying to get them to branch out a bit. If that's the intent, or even the unintended effect, that's great for craft beer, not an assault on it. Just look at the quotes in the interview above; this isn't Bud pretending to be Redhook; this is Bud going a bit off the reservation.

Which is part of the reason why, though I kind of love the absurdity of this project, I think it's a pretty terrible idea for Budweiser.

The whole brand is built on a wonder of the modern world that is Bud's consistency. The brand stands for that one thing. The bowtie and script do not instantly mean quality of ingredients or flavor or even the fact that the beer will be "cold" (to which Coors has latched its train); they mean familiarity and reliability. A bottle of Budweiser in India tastes the same as it does in St. Louis. That's incredible, and they are right to be proud of that. But to do this rather strange messing with variance under the Bud brand seems like risky business to me. Why not do it under a different ABI brand? Go back and read the the very delicate tiptoeing that Bud  underwent with this project distinguishing between celebrating the brewmasters' differences and making it clear there's no differences between breweries. At the end of the day, it is really difficult to celebrate diversity and creativity while not sending the message that there might also be variation. That's a small risk for, say, Sierra Nevada, which still basically caters to an artisanal market, but it's a pretty frikkin' enormous risk for Bud.

So I'd be one of those muckety-mucks looking at McCarthy and Killebrew and going "I've got a bad feeling about this." But, since it's not my money and I don't own stock in ABI, I'm glad they did it. It could easily help grow awareness of different beer flavors, and I think it's a great sign that ABI is starting to become more responsive. Craft beer drinkers always asked for a more fragmented beer market; it would be a wonderful irony if it was Budweiser that helped bring it about.

November 7, 2012

That's Fine, But Who Won the United States of Beer?

So, as first reported on this blog, there was an election yesterday. Some guy won who had already won before, which probably gave him an advantage over his apparently synthetic opponent. It was a squeaker, because he only won by like 2 million out of 100 million votes, and a landslide, because he won by like 100 of the 540 electoral votes.

No one cares.

Well, that's not true. Plenty of people care, including me. But this is a beer blog, so here no one cares.

More importantly, let's look at who won the United States of Beer.

Here's how I'll break it down: There are 50 states, and I've broken them into five tiers. Each state in the top tier gets you five Beerlectoral Votes, each state in the bottom gets you one, etc. Each tier gets exactly 10 states, and the criteria are subjective from within my head, with lots of credit to Jay Brooks' collection of various beer political wisdom. I can assure you, it makes more sense than most congressional districts or the Electoral College. Here's the map of the election:

Tier 1: The Best Brewery States - 5 points each

  • Oregon - Obama
  • California - Obama
  • Colorado - Obama
The top three are pretty close to inarguable, I think. Lots of craft breweries, lots of great breweries. Obama cleaned up.
  • Pennsylvania - Obama
  • Washington - Obama
  • Michigan - Obama
The next three are solidly top tier, with many craft breweries and defined beer traditions. Again, Obama doing well.
  • North Carolina - Romney
  • Indiana - Romney
  • Texas - Romney
  • Missouri - Romney

These are all pretty debatable. Texas three years ago might have been bottom tier, but huge booms in Austin, San Antonio and elsewhere have really made it a great beer state. Indiana has some fantastic, interesting breweries and hosted the Beer Bloggers Conference. North Carolina has Asheville. Missouri has St. Louis, which has a great craft beer scene right under ABI.

Final Tier 1 tally: Obama - 30, Romney - 20.

Tier 2: The Contenders - 4 points each

  1. Vermont - Obama
  2. Wisconsin - Obama
  3. Illinois - Obama
  4. Massachusetts - Obama
  5. Georgia - Romney
  6. Alaska - Romney
  7. Maine - Obama
  8. Minnesota - Obama
  9. Kansas - Romney
  10. Maryland - Obama
Final Tier 2 tally: Obama - 28, Romney - 12

All of these could probaby have a case to be in the bottom of the top tier, but ultimately either don't deliver enough for their population (e.g. Illinois, Mass), or are still too small to have the density and diversity of the top tier states. Obama extends his lead, now 58-32

Tier 3: Upside - 3 points each
  1. Wyoming - Romney
  2. Oklahoma - Romney
  3. Montana - Romney
  4. Ohio - Obama
  5. Virginia - Romney
  6. Nevada - Obama
  7. Delaware - Obama
  8. New Jersey - Obama
  9. Nebraska - Romney
  10. Tennessee - Romney
Tier 3 tally: Obama - 12, Romney - 18

Here, I started giving major bonus points to the Jeff Alworth school of thought - that small states with more breweries than you'd expect are doing something awesome. So we see Nebraska and Montana and Wyoming (which, based on my GABF experiences, is responsible for a lot of great beer). We do not see New York or Florida, which both have good breweries (sorry, Cigar City!) but just too many people for me to be impressed with the overall brewery scene. Tennessee makes the cut based on Yazoo and more breweries than you'd think. Romney edges Obama here, and cuts the lead to 70-50.

Tier 4: In-betweens - 2 points each
  1. Idaho - Romney
  2. South Carolina - Romney
  3. Louisiana - Romney
  4. Florida - Obama 
  5. New York - Obama
  6. New Mexico - Obama
  7. Iowa - Obama
  8. New Hampshire - Obama
  9. Utah - Romney
  10. Alabama - Romney
Final Tier 4 tally: 10-10

Here we really start seeing some flawed states, like Alabama, and some good ones for whom there was just no room above, like Idaho and South Carolina. It's a tie, though, and that means Romney's cooked.

Tier 5: Some Work to Do - 1 point each
  1. Kentucky - Romney
  2. Arizona - Romney
  3. N. Dakota - Romney
  4. S. Dakota - Romney
  5. W. Virginia - Romney
  6. Arkansas - Romney
  7. Hawaii - Obama
  8. Rhode Island - Obama
  9. Connecticut - Obama
  10. Mississippi - Romney
Final Tier 5 tally: Romney - 7, Obama - 3

Not much to say. These states just don't have much of a brewery scene that's readily apparent.

OBAMA IS THE PRESIDENT OF BEER: 83-67 Beerlectoral votes. Axelrod and Plouffe really can win anything. Even if we give Romney Florida, he still loses.

Editor's note: This was entirely silly and a ridiculous exercise to get me blogging again. There are probably great breweries in low-ranked states to which I can't get access, so I'm going by distribution, Brookston's state beer pages (which probably became out of date almost instantly), GABF, and Internet research. 

It would, however, be cool if those of you who feel I've drastically screwed up, either in process or ranking, were to submit your own via Facebook or the comments. Then we could Internet-argue, and then not go into post-election Internet-argument withdrawal.

November 6, 2012

Cleaning Up the Gallery, and Looking Forward to Amber Waves

Happy Day of Elections, Beerfriends. Today we overthrow the government of the United States, and then go have a beer or two.

The last two months have been one recovery after another, from Great American Beer Festival to Hurricane to Birthdays, and beyond, and so the blogging has lapsed. No more. In the coming weeks, you will see here on these virtual pages the following:

  • An entire post about (gasp) Anheuser-Busch
  • A design look at the redone Website of the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • A major announcement for the alcohol-loving people of Eastern PA.
And, as they say, much more.

But first, I would like to look forward to an event in the spring hosted by two semi-local breweries, Dogfish and Victory. It is a pairing event, where they pair beer and art, and it is called (aptly, for today), Amber Waves:
Amber Waves Beer Art Event

Breweries submit a recipe, and a piece of art, both of which will be at the event at the CBC if accepted.

This is awesome, and while there is a tiny twinge of regret for me (I always hoped the Design, Drink and Be Merry show would grow into something like this), it is insanely awesome that these two breweries are doing it. I very much hope to get down to the event in March. More and more, we're seeing acceptance that art matters in beer.

Also, slightly sooner on the horizon is the Coast to Coast Toast, the massive day of Belgian Beer celebration by Vanberg & DeWulf. You can see what bars in your area are participating, or perhaps get a local establishment signed up. Of course, the Vanberg interest is obvious, but the reality of the day is less an overt marketing ploy than it is a day to celebrate the (still) unparalleled balance and complexity of the best Belgian beers. It is a GREAT opportunity for you beer evangelists to rope in some wine people who still think they don't like beer. Get them a Saison Dupont or a Posca Rustica, and see what they say.

All right, sorry for the short post after the long absence. It'll all make more sense in a bit.

Stay dry. Stay warm. Stay enfranchised.