Barley Mowat 

Dr Jekyll and Mr Brewer

with 4 comments

Let’s completely abandon reality and pretend just for a second that you’re actually good at something. It doesn’t have to be something that you like; heck, let’s just assume you hate this thing. However, doing this something makes you enough money and gives you enough spare time that you are free to pursue another thing that you truly, deeply care about. Would you keep doing the profitable something?

It’s a hard question to answer, but unless the thing in question was a humanity reducing and esteem debasing action like reviewing macro beer, odds are you’d suck it up like a champ and get back to your client in that dirty alley behind the Biltmore.

Pictured: Capital Investment.

This is the dilemma that a number of BC Breweries currently find themselves in, especially the middle-aged ones that grew up in the late 90s. Back then, that boring pale ale you brewed was just about the most exciting beer anyone had ever drunk, and they loved you for it. Problem is, it hasn’t kept up with the times, and definitely stands out as a first-wave micro-brewed product that is now long past its best-by date.

Now comes the curveball: people keep buying it, and not just a little bit here and there, but in huge, massive volumes–everything you brew, in fact. They grew up on this beer and are brand loyal to it in the same way American yahoos will slit your freaking throat for preferring the wrong type of slightly alcoholic malt-water. On top of that, because the ingredients are simple and don’t contain many of those “hops” the kids are all a-ga-ga over these days, it’s cheap to make and profitable as all shit.

So what do you do? You kind of want to produce better beer in volume, but you also kind of like money and keeping the brewery up-and-running. If you went bankrupt, afterall, you wouldn’t be able to produce those limited run beers that the beer geeks actually seem to like.

Which brewery am I talking about? Pretty much all of them, but especially Granville Island and OK Spring. To a lesser extent, though, this is a problem faced by Lighthouse and Russell. Heck, even Central City and Driftwood are facing early versions of this very problem.

In short, no brewery is safe from this. Let’s assume that Seedspitter continues to sell gang busters in 10 years even after the state of the fruit-based beer art has long left it behind. Will Parallel 49 be able to put the cash cow out to pasture and move on? Maybe after one more season… yeah, just this one…

Somehow I think this goes poorly for the goose.

OK fine, use the money from this year to buy new capacity, then use that new capacity to brew better beer. What’s that? The retailers just want more Seedspitter? Well, I guess… I could always buy a new brewkit next year…

I know what you’re thinking: why don’t they just bite the bullet and simply brew better beer? It will sell just as well, and everyone will be happy! Small craft breweries are the largest growing segment in the BC beer market, afterall! This seems like a great idea, but it won’t work.

I had a great conversation a few months back with OK Spring Brewmaster Stefan Tobler about this very concept, in which I espoused that exact sentiment. I even cited that Goliath of great beer, Deschutes, as an example of how you could profitably brew large volumes of critically acclaimed beer*.

The problem, he says, is that the millions of people that religiously drink OK Spring Pale Ale (one of BC’s best selling beers) aren’t the same millions of people that drink Deschutes Inversion IPA. He has a point. (Also, the ones that drink Inversion are rather inconveniently located in the USA, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Can you imagine what would happen if, overnight, OK Pale Ale was replaced by Really Awesome Cascadian IPA? The loyal crowds would freak out, then flock over to GIB Pale Ale, and the meagre few craft beer geeks that could see past the OK Spring label wouldn’t replace even 1% of them. In six months OK Spring would be sold off by Sapporo (well, in reality, the management staff would all lose their jobs long before that).

Or, we can hope, eliminated one by one in an awesome Japanese game show.

You can move the market, but you have to do it very very carefully. Maybe Lighthouse is onto something by sloooowly changing up their six packs. Heck, even GIB has murmured something about relaunching their IPA. If you slowly make the beer better and better, perhaps there won’t be one jump large enough to confuse the brand-followers, and then they’ll find themselves drinking the same beer as bearded guys at the bar. Kind of like boiling a frog… only with beer. Um, I have to go; I just thought of a great recipe.

* I also suspect that Deschutes has their own version of this problem. It’s hard to imagine that the same folk that give us Dissident, Abyss and Stoic get all a-tingle over yet another 100hl batch of Mirror Pond.

Written by chuck

January 22nd, 2013 at 3:31 pm

4 Responses to 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Brewer'

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  1. I heard a rumour going around that when Lighthouse changed brewers, he tinkered with with some of the recipes for their older brands, like Race Rocks, Riptide, and Keeper’s. Do you know if that’s true? I haven’t had any of their “Signature Brands” in probably half a decade, but i LOVE everything they’re putting out in the Big Flavour Series, along with Tasman and Switchback. I’d go so far as to say that Deckhand is in my top five of beers brewed in BC. Maybe it’s time to go back and revisit their traditional line up?


    22 Jan 13 at 16:51

  2. It’s a great point Chuck. Opening up inter-Provincial liquor sales a bit more might help. If Lighthouse (for example) can increase volumes by shipping Switchback to Ontario then maybe the can follow the Deschutes model rather than the others.


    22 Jan 13 at 17:18

  3. @Dave – Dean (Lighthouse Brewmaster) is suitably tight-lipped around such things as future release plans, no matter how many pints you buy him. I was more referring to Tasman/Switchback taking over a good chunk of their 6er sales, but when you put someone as quality-obsessed as Dean in a room making Race Rocks… something’s bound to happen.


    23 Jan 13 at 10:06

  4. The recipes of the original Lighthouse beers have not been changed. Still Maris Otter and specialties from Simpsons, and still the old house yeast. There have been a raft of process and procedural changes however, the yeast has been cleaned up, and the beers themselves are drinking as well know as I can recall. And until there is not a single person interested in drinking these beers, we’ll keep brewing them.


    25 Jan 13 at 14:50

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