Barley Mowat 

More Than 30 Seconds

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As great as being on the radio was, it’s hard to accurately convey your point of view across in thirty seconds. My source interview with Mike Lloyd was, in itself, only three or four minutes long, and then that was edited down to the choice sound-bytes. While I think that the News 1130 crew did a great job with what they had to work with, the subject they brought up needs a bit more time than perhaps an all-news radio station is currently willing to devote to it.

The topic of iced-tea flavoured beer is approximately 10,000x more complex and nuanced than you might expect. It is, honestly, the sweet and disgustingly syrupy tip of the iced-tea-berg (very different from the iced-tea-bag… which is just… unpleasant).

First, a bit of history. Lighter tasting beers are a fairly recent innovation in brewing. While the trend towards predominantly lager production was in place pretty much as soon as lager was invented, the wheels really didn’t come off the beer flavour cart until US prohibition. Prohibition is pretty much solely responsible for the invention of “American-style Pale Lager”, a label that’s about as hard to throw out of your mouth as the product is to throw in. Even so, this abomination is anywhere from 75-95% of all beer sold, depending on market (we’re ~80%, FYI).

Bartenders in the dark years of prohibition would smuggle barrels of lager in from Canada and then conscientiously serve a quality product to their clientele, who, suffering under the iron fist of repression, needed just a few moments relief from their cruel beer-less lives. Just kidding, they watered that shit down to within an inch of its life and sold it to desperate rummies who’d pay anything for their medicine.

Surprisingly, their patrons actually *preferred* the lighter flavoured, lower alcohol product. Partly this was because the beer was either originally produced in someone’s bathtub between bathings, or even worse, smuggling in from Canada in a long, unrefrigerated version of a reverse underground railroad. Also, it could be presumed it was easier to deny imbibing illegally if one wasn’t passed out blind drunk at the dinner table.

I’d laugh, but that’s probably my grandmother.

When the USA got their collective senses back and repealed prohibition, the pent-up demand was not for quality ales, but rather for the weaker american lagers… and an industry was born. In the next few decades, things went from bad to worse as breweries boomed, grew to industrial scale, and began experimenting with ways to make their product even less flavourful. Flavourless hops and barley were custom bred to help (Coors famously uses their own species of barley) but that only took things so far.

Shortly adjuncts such as corn entered the brewing chain, along with non-hops bittering methods. These were praised not only by consumers for providing “clean, refreshing taste” but also by the producers because they’re cheap as fuck compared to actual barley and hops.

Around this industry of generic, insipid drunk-water grew a massive marketing machine. This isn’t an accident; the only way to differentiate an entire industry of effectively identical products is through branding. And thus the big-budget beer commercial was born.

As well as something called the “inverse beer/advertising rule.”

To keep things interesting, the big brands would introduce a new variant of their beer periodically. A new logo catches the eye and engages consumer interest, but ultimately it’s all a ploy. The macro brewer doesn’t really want you to like the new sub-brand; they just want you to feel like you’ve tried something new when you really haven’t.

The new sub-brand will quickly fade from the commercials, and then disappear altogether only to be replaced a few years later by something new. Remember Molson M, which Molson launched as the best thing since sliced bread only a year ago? Try and buy some today.

About the only major beer variant that actually stuck was, you guessed it, light beer: beer with even less flavour than the american pale lager it replaced. So now we have the “American-Style Calorie Reduced Pale Lager” to fit on beer-style labels. Thanks, asshats.

Alright, we’re all caught up. Iced tea, lime, and mojito flavoured beer are the next cycle, right? Well, maybe not.

This is where it gets interesting. All those other sub-brands were generally marketed on anything but their flavour. Take Molson M, as before, which was marketed on… um… the “microcarbonated” trademark, I guess. But that was the point: a flashy new colour scheme, logo, and ad campaign that would get attention, but could also be thrown away a year later without impacting the core brand.

These new products could very well be the same thing, but they’re different in a very important way: they have MORE flavour than the beer they’re based on. Sure, a technicality, but think about it this way: what other beverages are out there that are sweet, slightly alcoholic and flavoured like random stuff?

Yup, vodka coolers. These beers are plays into the teen-marketed alco-pop territory, and rather brilliant ones at that. If it all goes to hell, you just write it down as your bi-yearly experimental re-branding, but if it goes well you’ve just bridged into a new market, with a new target audience, where you have a massive advantage over your competitors.

What advantage? Taxes. In plain and simple terms, vodka production is taxed all to hell while beer production gets a relative cake walk. Despite the fact that both end-products are in the 4-7% ABV range, vodka still starts out at a tax-man’s dream of 40%. The beer, however, can be custom brewed to the target booziness without straying above the magic (and arbitrary) 12% barrier.

Then, thanks to all those decades of experience in brewing tasteless lager, the macros can get away with adding only a little volume of flavouring to this concoction, and thus stay on the friendly side of laws around minimum barley content in beer which were designed, honestly, to prevent exactly this sort of thing.

So, back to the core question: Are these products beer? I would say both yes and no. These are absolutely alcoholic products produced primarily through barley malt fermentation. That’s the yes. However, the flavourings are designed to completely overwhelm or replace the malt flavour of said barley, and I say that makes it not beer.

They might as well be mixing vodka with mojito mix at this point. They would, but it’d be too expensive.

Written by chuck

July 9th, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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