Barley Mowat 

Archive for March, 2012

A Nightmare on Triumph Street

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Alright. I can do this. I’m a big boy. Deep breath.

You know how I tend to be the blogger that “calls it like I sees it”? Well, that apparently comes with a bit of a responsibility in this industry. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: everyone in the beer industry is nice. Very nice. Almost cloyingly nice. They’ll never say ill about someone else in craft beer, ever… in public.

They will, however, pull aside the loudmouthed angry blogger known for calling out people and confess, in hushed tones, their concern about a recent brewery startup. They will do that, a lot, in the quiet hope that someone (aka me) says something.

And such is the situation I find myself in right now. Everyone wants to talk to me about Coal Harbour Brewing, and everyone has serious concerns about what’s going on down on Triumph Street. Guys, you have a problem, and we’re here to help.

Should… should someone say something?

Note that I said “concerns” not “criticism.” You see, these fine folks want nothing but the best for everyone else in the industry, and when a new brewery starts behaving in ways that frankly make no sense, they’re concerned. They want CHB to succeed, but don’t know how to tell them what’s wrong.

So, where to start? Well, what with them being a brewery and me being a beer snob, it seems natural to start with the beers.

The Beers: They aren’t very good. Their lagers range from distressingly awful (Three-11) to brutally insipid (Vancouver), and their rye ale (Triumph), while arguably the best thing they make, is still a solid meh.

Is that enough to issue a Chuck-standard warning? Nope. Breweries have bad batches, and it takes time to work out the kinks in a new system. I had thought it perfectly likely that the beer as I’d tasted it was not the beer they’d wanted to brew. However, as more pieces clicked into place that became less likely. Like this one: their brewmaster is an import from Surgenor, known for pale insipid lagers meant to appeal to island folk who grew up on Lucky. Sorry folk, these are their beers as they are meant to be produced.

Naming: This is a minor point, and really I only mention it as part of the whole picture for a sense of completeness. Breweries tend to have boring names; they’re founded by brewmasters who maybe don’t have the best imagination around, so they are typically named after either the person making the beer (Hoyne, Russell, etc) or, much more commonly, the place where the beer is made (GIB, VIB, Howe Sound, etc). Occasionally someone gets all creative and we wind up with a Crannog or a Driftwood, but those are the exceptions to the Tofinos, Central Citys and Craig Streets of the world.

Sadly, once in a while, you get a brewery that attempts to make their slightly-depressing location in an industrial district more exciting by just up-and-pretending they’re somewhere else. Take Stanley Park or Hell’s Gate, for instance (both shadow brands under Turning Point). This is the case with Coal Harbour. The brewery is nowhere near Coal Harbour. It’s on Triumph Street, in East Van, in one of a row of anonymous warehouses. However, unlike Stanley Park, they make no effort to hide the true location of their brewery. They even have a map on the website.

Being creative with the name is fine so long as you don’t outright lie. It gives them a chance to invent a slick, cool logo (which is awesome, btw), and maybe do something less UK Warship name-ish than “Triumph Brewing”. Again, no biggie unless taken as part of the whole. Trust me, though, I’m going somewhere with this.

Equipment: Now we’re into the meat of things. When one starts a brewery, one orders some brewing kit. Usually, before one does this, one measures the space into which one hopes to install said kit. This step seems to have been skipped, as CHB discovered that their shiny new fermenters were too tall to fit in their existing space. Again, no biggie. They’re brewers and brewers don’t always think things through.

So they altered them. By cutting off the yeast cones and slapping on domed bottoms. Now that’s an interesting take on the matter. Given the choice, most folk would have shortened the tank (at the expense of volume) rather than cut off the cones and basically have to reinvent how to brew beer at industrial volumes. This might not be a bad thing, as flat bottom fermenters means the yeast is all happy and free, and your beers come out very cloudy and yeast-tastic. This is part of what gives home-brewed beer that distinctive flavour. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless, say, 2 of your three beers are lagers, which are known for their clarity. Now you basically have to filter the ever-loving fuck out of your beers, and as anyone will tell you: filtering also strains out character and flavour. There’s a reason other micro-breweries proudly state “unfiltered” on the sides of their bottles.

The other problem with their brewing equipment is that there’s a lot of it. A giant fucktonne, in fact. It takes a lot of beer to fill all those snub-nosed fermenters and conditioning tanks. And it takes an awful lot of sales to keep the flow going and your beer at it’s freshest and bestest. When the sales are down, and you have a giant bank loan to pay off, are you going to pour out that past-its-prime 20hl CT like you should, or just look the other way and keg it? Exactly.

Product Pricing: Three-11 is a economy product competing on price. Translation from marketing speak: It’s cheap. Say what you like about the flavour, style and quality, but boy it sure is cheap. That is attractive for bars that also serve marcos, as somewhat shockingly, macros are not cheap, but their clientele sure as hell are. This is a perfectly fine approach to selling bad beer, but then CHB had to go out and create a not-quite-as-bad lager that is nowhere-near-as-cheap. Their Vancouver Lager is much more expensive for a bar to bring in compared to Three-11. This sounds like no problem to bar owners until a meathead who’s been drinking “CHB Lager” all night for $4 a glass down the street walks in, sees “CHB Lager” on tap for $7 a glass, and proclaims the bar to be a rip-off. This image hurts any bar that sells the better beer, making keeping it on tap a hard proposition. Yes, they’re both likely properly labeled, but do you think lager louts can read?

I’m seriously impressed when they remember to breathe.

Marketing: Their marketing strategy thus far appears to be “find out where Driftwood is, and go there.” Not a bad strategy… at first glance. They’re a small brewery and don’t have a lot of money to invest in finding the best spots, so why not ride the coattails of BC’s best microbrewery to find all the markets where people like good beer? Well, that’s the problem. CHB isn’t good beer; it’s not meant to be good beer. It’s brewed to compete against Stanley Park Amber and Pilsner, whether the folk at CHB believe that or not. Sure, putting a tap handle next to Driftwood Fat Tug means you’re front and centre in an establishment that likes to try new things. And yes, that bearded beer geek blogger who just saddled up to the bar and who has never heard of CHB sure as hell will order one. Then I’ll drink 1/2 of it, send the other half back, tell the bar manager to never order that shite again, and move down the menu to see what those whacky US breweries are up to.

Here’s a hint to the CHB sales department: get a tap next to Stanley Park Pilsner. That is a beer positioned in a bar mostly dominated by macros. And a good chunk of those patrons will find even the moderate flavour of Stanley Park Pilsner a bit much of a leap from the watered-down goat piss that is Canadian. That’s where you come in. You’re better than Canadian, but not as “weird” as Stanley Park (I mean, there’s *hops* in that! Who likes hops?!). There’s a niche there. Fill it.

So there’s our advice: Streamline your beer lineup, go after Stanley Park, make money, and then (hopefully), use those profits to brew actual good beer. Sure, this isn’t a great strategy, but it’s a lot better than what you’re currently doing. You can’t compete with the craft breweries on quality (or at least you don’t seem to want to), and you sure as hell can’t compete with the macros on brand recognition. What’s left is the quasi-craft market, where you will be up against Stanley Park (aka Mark Anthony), Granville Island (aka Molson) and Okanagan Springs (aka Sapporo). That’s a hard market to work in, but at least it’s a strategy that makes sense.

Or, you know, brew good beer. Switch to the classic 1-2-3 of craft beer start-ups: an IPA, a hoppy Pale, and a punchy Pilsner. Or branch out a bit and do a funky Saison–your cone-less fermenters could be perfect for this. We’ll drink them, I promise, and it’s an easier market to work in.

Written by chuck

March 10th, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Breweries

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Just Here For The… Buzz?

with 3 comments

A while back, I was having a lovely stroll through Lighthouse’s facilities and just generally geeking out with their Captain of Brew, Dean, when he said something that bordered on rubbing me the wrong way. While picking up a bottle of Belgian Black (a fantastic beer, btw, that is still available most everywhere), he proudly discussed everything about the beer before us, including the malt, yeast, brewing process and packaging… and then we got to talking about alcohol content.

I was curious about Lighthouse’s position on the booze content of their beers, but mostly from the point of view of Deckhand being about 8% yet not being labeled an Imperial. I mean, saisons after all are meant to be low-ABV post-manual labour thirst quenchers. Kinda like the role that pale lagers fulfill in today’s market only, you know, good.

After a couple of opinions and facts exchanged that I honestly can’t remember, Dean said something about the Belgian Black that I do remember (ish). He said that the 9%ABV had the benefit of a higher perceived value on the store shelves–that it would set it aside from the clutter of other high-end beers with 8% ABV.

I just chocked that one up to Dean hanging out with the guys from marketing a bit too much, and moved along. I mean obviously we’re not all just in this to get drunk as our primary motivation, or even secondary. Heck, tertiary has a hard time making the mix, at least not to the extent that I’d pick one beer over the other solely because it’s 1%ABV higher. If I were really into that, I’d be over in the Cheap Liquor Aisle.

And what an aisle it is

And I forgot all about it. Until recently, when someone I know (who will remain nameless), whose opinion on matters of beer I trust and respect, made me think about it again. I was discussing my recent acquisition of He’Brew Jewbelation 15 for only $6, and he commented that it was a “great value” what with it being 15% and all.

So now I have to ask, does getting the brew’s ability to get you loaded factor into your purchasing decision? For me, it doesn’t. In fact, I often purchase beer based on the brewery’s reputation and the story on the side, only to get it home, crack it, and discover 1/2 way through that I’m drinking essentially a bottle of wine by myself. This was the case two years ago with Jewbelation 13 when, 300ml in, I thought “Man, I’m way drunker than I should be…” only to discover the “13” wasn’t just a clever marketing ploy.

If anything, I actually prefer lower ABV beers simply for their ability to let me drink more of them, or perhaps even drink a whole 650ml bottle on a school night without repercussion. Wine keeps night to night. Beer doesn’t, and sometimes I find that what was a great idea at bottle opening has become less than brilliant the next day at work.

Sure, it was an awesome idea when we thought of it, but somehow I suspect we haven’t thought this thing through

I’m an optimist, and I’d like to believe that ABV isn’t as big a selling feature as marketing folk might believe. If it was a huge differentiator, then why not make the number huge and up front? But what do I know? I’m a myopic, insular beer geek. Perhaps to sway the general public over to Good Beer, we also have to get them drunk first.

(Funny picture reference the general public having fun while drunk left to the reader as an exercise)

Written by chuck

March 7th, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Beer and You

Tagged with

Everything In This Blog Is A Lie… Including This

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I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes I go out to house parties. And sometimes, at these parties, my friends show up with mediocre beer. Not bad beer, mind you; they’ve all learnt not to poke the dragon. Regardless of their views on Molson, they’ve come to understand it’s just not worth the resulting lecture to drink it in my presence. Or really to even mention the brand name without an appropriate sneer.

Nah, we’re talking just “meh” beer here. Like Stanley Park Amber, for instance. It’s pretty insipid beer, but you know what? If you threw a dart in the LDB you’d likely come away with something worse (although that does raise an interesting trivia point… what IS the 50th percentile SKU in terms of quality at the LDB? I’ll look into it.)

As a milder form of my Molson/Stella/Heineken punishment, I am fond of playing a little game with the Stanley Park box that I like to call “Count the Implied Lies.” Why “Implied”? Because Mark Anthony Group (the fine folk behind this particular brew) are no dummies. They have lawyers, lots of lawyers. Heck, they might even be lawyers. In fact they have so many lawyers this article might be my last. And their lawyers have helped them craft what is just an absolutely fantastic piece of marketing that approaches, plays with–nay flirts with–nay spends all night buying drinks for, but never actually calls back the next day-with, but does not actually cross the line of false advertising. The package implies lots of facts, but never actually claims something outright that isn’t true.

Pictured: Exhibit “A”
Click to embiggen.

So let’s play a game, shall we? Count the number of implied lies on this great slice of packaging, and let’s compare notes. Please let me know if I’ve missed something.

  1. Brewery Location The brewery is, alas, not in Stanley Park… or close to it. The brewery is not even in Vancouver. It’s on Annacis Island. In Delta. You know, by the sewage treatment plant?
  2. Brewery Name Sadly, this beer is not brewed by Stanley Park Brewing. There is, in fact, no such brewery. Instead, we can thank Turning Point Brewing for this one. And Hell’s Gate Lager. Yum! At least they’ve taken the trouble to make a completely misleading website for us. Note the complete lack of references to any of: “Turning Point”, “Annacis Island” or even “Down by the sewage treatment plant.” But hey! Look at all these fancy pictures of the Sea Wall and nature!
  3. Brewery Founding Date Turning Point began operations in 2010 which a bit of research has informed me, occured sometime after the 1897 so proudly splashed out on their label. Oddly, the first Stanley Park Brewing actually started up in 1896, but perhaps that year didn’t test as well in marketing?
  4. Brewery History Turning Point has no relation whatsoever to the original Stanley Park Brewery. Why would they? That brewery folded over 100 years ago so there’s no trademark to acquire.
  5. Wind Powered Yup, they’ve got a wind turbine. “A” as in “one.” If you believe that’s running the boilers in a ~100 hectolitre brewery I’ve got a wind turbine to sell you. I’d be impressed if that thing powers the lights. As a side note, does anyone else find it odd that it rotates even when there’s no wind?
  6. Sustainable Brewery* Sorry, they’re not a sustainable brewery, in that they use more resources than they put back into the environment, in terms of electricty alone. They also order hops and malt from a catalogue, meaning that their supply chain is also almost certainly similarly un-sustainable. They’re better than most, but still not 100% sustainable.
  7. First Sustainable Brewery Ok, so they’re not perfect (and who is, right?) but at least they’re the first. Uh… nope. Other breweries have tried to be sustainable, most notably Crannog Brewing, who make a point of using solar power where possible, and growing their own hops & barley.
  8. Most Advanced Brewery Actually, I think they have this one. Every source I can find just completely raves about their awesome setup. “Most Advanced” is even less define-able than “sustainable” but at least there’s a few ways in which this one is demonstrably true.
  9. Belgian Amber This one is arguable, but I didn’t taste anything Belgian in terms of flavour. This is a straight up pale amber ale, nice n simple n bland. If there ever was any Belgian funk in that bottle, it was left behind in the filters.

* Sustainable is a very hard thing to define. Heck, the wiki entry on it starts with this notion. However, even the most liberal use of the word generally means a net-zero use of energy and resources, and they just aren’t there. This doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. My opinions on the quality of the end product aside, TP is doing lots of things right when it comes to reducing the environmental footprint of a product that is, afterall, very energy intensive to produce. Things like:
– Recycling spent grain (most places throw it out)
– Reducing water loss during brewing
– By reducing water loss, they also reduce energy costs (steam is lost heat)
– Hybrid delivery vehicles
– And yes, that damned windmill. Even though it doesn’t run the place, it does provide at least SOME engery, and that’s better than the magic electricity hole in the wall

However, despite all this, saying that they’re fully sustainable is misleading at best.

Written by chuck

March 5th, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Posted in Beer and You,Breweries

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