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Thursday, February 1, 2007

SBP: We're On the Radar

Seen Through a Glass has its first comments, and now it has its first blog post: Stan Hieronymus talks about it on his blog, Appellation Beer: Beer From a Good Home. He's talking about the Session Beer Project rather than STAG itself, and says

"In working on another project, I’ve been reviewing way too much 1980s
literature about American beer. In one story a German brewer says he’d never
export his beer to the United States because Americans can’t appreciate its
flavors. He might still feel the same way, but the fact is ex****e beers helped
change what was a pathetic image (both of brewers and consumers)." [Stan is
avoiding the word "extreme" in conjunction with beer...for reasons of his own. Maybe he just doesn't want to get Googled by guys like me.]

I'll agree about the change of image, but not to anywhere near the degree Stan sees. Extreme beer may have gotten us into the Wall Street Journal, but I strongly feel that it was steady slogging of beers like New Belgium Fat Tire Amber, Goose Island Honkers Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Abita Amber, and Harpoon IPA that did more to change that image than anything. Everyday people drink beers like these every day. Beers like these are showing up in restaurants every day. Check out Don Russell's recent column on how widespread crafts are getting to be in Philly.

Extreme beers are getting the press; Stan's right about that, and I agree. That's why this blog is here, after all. But session beers are getting the taphandles, and the sales, and the friends. Here's a quote from the recent piece I did on extreme beers for BeerAdvocate Magazine:
"From an evolutionary perspective, people are predisposed to not like bitter
flavors because it means poison, sick, bad," New Belgium brewer Matt Gilliland
muses. "What percentage of people in the U.S. do you think have overcome that
genetic hard-wiring and really like 100 IBU beer? There you go, that’s your

The market for session beer is much larger, and sales prove it.

Naturally, I don't believe anyone is saying that extreme beers sell more. But when something starts to become ubiquitous, it has a lot of effect on the image. The image of the category as a whole becomes less crucial, and the image of the individual beer becomes more it should be, I'd argue.

Tim Roberts, the tragically underrated brewer at Philly's Independence Brewpub, told me this, a quote that I thought was too controversial for the piece.

"I think this trend [extreme beer] is also bad for the industry, in that it
perpetuates a couple of myths about craft brewing—first that "micro-brews" are
thick, syrupy, too strong, too bitter, etc., and also that these are beers only
for a certain few people who are "into them," i.e. fat guys in black, Magic Hat
t-shirts [Luckily, I don't resemble that remark anymore...]. For these
reasons, it seems to me, more drinkable, session style beers are a must if the
industry is ever going to seriously challenge the big brewers for real market
share. "

Some folks will say that the craft brewing industry doesn't need to challenge the big brewers for market share; they can continue as the top of the market. I think that's naive. The industry will have to grow to survive. Not all breweries will have to grow. But overall, if they're not growing, they're dying. I think the craft brewing industry has great potential, and despite the booming market for light beer, I think craft can be a success on a major level. But it is going to be session beers that put it there.

Your turn, Stan.


Anonymous said...

I hate to be boring, Lew, and basically agree with you but I must. Kind of hidden in my post I wrote that much of the growth - the other part of the business story that gets attention - belongs to session beers.

There's a gigantic chunk of the craft beer consuming public that pays no attention to "Extreme beers" and never will. That's why I wish the non-X brewers would quit acting like the X brewers just gave them a collective wedgie.

What I was trying to say earlier, and probably didn't well enough, is that the collective effort of American brewers (and consumers) across all styles and non-styles is what earned the country new respect in the brewing world.

As to the craft brewing industry challenging for market share, yes that is important. But I don't think ever beer has to appeal to a wide audience.

FYI, I made a resolution not to use the term "extreme beers" without carefully explaining what I mean (I think you've also alluded to the confusion). I even had an electric shocking thing installed on my keyboard that hurts me when I type the words.

That's enough about me and you. I'm looking forward to commenting on a session beer, not Stan (or whiskey).

Lew Bryson said...

We both know it's about the beer, that's what I love about Stan. Folks, most times Stan is the geekiest beer guy in the room...until we start talking ideals and trends and image and relevance of beer...and then he and I are neck and neck, totally unembarrassed about how that big beer geek heart is on our sleeve.
Thanks for the welcome, Stan. Agreed: let's get back to beer.

Bryan Kolesar said...

It was driving me outta my skin the other day when BA had a thread going (on which I thankfully refrained from voicing additional opinions) where more than one opinion already has announced the obvious obituary for the soon-to-be new Dock Street in Philly if they don't brew big, sensory overloaded, complex beers for the beer geek community to enjoy.

If I recall correctly, it was also assumed that it's the beer geek crowd that keeps brewpubs in business. Amusing and perplexing...

Lew Bryson said...

True, Bryan: there are only so many geeks out there, and they usually are not loyal to one why should a brewpub cater to them? I do believe in the idea of a "signifying beer," a big beer that a place makes without thought to selling it for a big profit, just to prove that they can. But to declare a place DOA just because they don't announce an ambitious program of wowzer beers -- before they even open or even hire a brewer -- seems a bit over the top.

Anonymous said...

A good example of session beers, or at least non-extreme beers, driving massive-for-craft-brewer growth would be Boulevard. They're well over 100,000 barrels per year, and brew primarily solid drinking beers. Geeks aren't on them hardly at all, although I've heard whispers that they have some wacky stuff on deck. Still, they're getting really quite big on the strength of a basic normal-strength lineup, sold to beer-drinking locals.

Adam said...

Ok...I'm feeling a bit like a groupie now. This is my third comment right after Bryan tipped me off to you new blog here. But...

This convo really strikes at the heart of something I have struggled with. How do I drink a beer with my Dad? The answer, though I didn't realize it at the time, may just be in the "session beer". He likes a beer with good solid flavor, but, not an extreme beer.

Hmmm..."Dad, I think you like session beers." Nah...I'll just hand him one :-)

Lew Bryson said...

Andy, take a closer look at my original list of session beers: Bully Porter's there. And I've quoted folks from Boulevard. They've an excellent story to tell, you bet.

Lew Bryson said...

Adam, my dad and I compromise on Victory Lager: easy enough for him, complex enough for me. The Stegmaier Summer Stock Lager did the trick nicely, too.

Anonymous said...

My stepdad and I compromise on Troegs variety case. I like the pale ale and hopback amber...he likes the dreamweaver wheat and sunshine pils.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to say that this is a great step for a man who used to buy cases of MGD (cans), Coors Extra Gold (cans), and JW Dundee's Honey Brown. Then he went on Atkins and would only drink that nasty Michelob carbless beer.

Loren said...

You said it perfectly in your article in the BA Feb. issue where Sam C.'s remarks about "Extreme Beer gets a noobs attention..." but it takes session beers to keep the discussion moving.

This is a revolution the beer industry has needed for quite a long time.

Reward the brewers who brew basic beers 24/7/365, and brew them good!, with press and not just GABF medals.


Unknown said...

I have long regarded the likes of Abita and O'Fallon as hitting this mark and continue to sing their praises.

Thanks for speaking up and let us hope the industry takes note.


Lew Bryson said...

Loren, Travis...
That's what it's all about, you got the idea.

By the same token (and I know both of you agree), if a session beer is sub-par or just plain badly brewed, they're not getting mercy or kid gloves here. We're past that point. Beers stand on their own, because bad beer does not do anyone good, especially the brewer.