Barley Mowat 

Of Marketing and Men

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Let’s talk marketing and craft beer. Recently, one of BC’s craft beer success stories decided to change how they market one of their flagship production ales. The brewery and beer in question is Central City Red Racer ESB. On the surface this change should be met with “meh” and a shrug of your shoulders. However, I think it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.

I’ll come right out and say that I’m a fan of this beer. It’s quite a nice west coast take on the ESB style, and often a nice go-to beer for me at the pub once I’m done with the fermented banana/rice lambics. I’m not even alone in my praise, it scores a solid 93/99 on, or at least it did until CC changed the name and RateBeer took down the old rating.

Is it the best bitter in BC? Nope. That honour goes to R&B’s East Side Bitter (aside: don’t let that go to your head guys, the balance of your line up is middling to average at best. Do better. But I digress). Even though it’s not the best, it is a pretty darned good ale to slurp through your beard on a cold winter’s night.

So what’s the fuss about? Well, they elected to change the name from “ESB” to “India Style Red Ale.” For those wondering, ESB is a bonafide beer style. The BJCP even agrees with me: Category 8C, Extra Special/Strong Bitter.

India Style Red Ale, however, is much less of a thing. Sure, some other breweries have made IRAs, but it’s still not a main stream style, or really very common at all. So why would they change the name from something that very much is a real thing to something that very much isn’t? Marketing. You see, people are walking into liquor stores around the world, seeing the word “Bitter” on the can and thinking “Ew. Bitter. I hate things that are bitter. Where are the sweet beers?”

At first I wonder why these people are even in the beer section, and then I remember that’s where they keep this… stuff.

How I wish I was kidding about that. People with unsophisticated palates fucking LOVE sweet things, and beer is no exception. Seriously, I often get this question asked of me: “What is it that makes Granville Island Winter Ale SOOO good?” to which I reply “You. You’re an idiot who prizes high sweetness above actual flavour. You make it SOOO good. Most other people around here find it to be a sugar and artificial vanilla bomb whose very existence is hurtful to other beers.”

So, Central City Marketing decided that they’d rather ditch the “Bitter” than not sell their beer to morons. I can’t fault the logic too much. CC is a business focused on profits, and you don’t make gobs of sticky cash by first administering an IQ test before selling someone your beer. Also, maybe they’ll unknowingly buy that ESB and discover that they actually like it since, you know, it’s pretty good beer.

It might not say bitter on the outside of the can but at least it’s still bitter on the inside. The recipe is the same. CC hasn’t gone the way of the devil and started making syrupy sweet sugar drinks. At least they have that.

Aw fuck. Really, guys?

Let’s talk a bit more about the outside of that can, though. You have something that very arguably is an ESB on the inside, and a good one at that, but you can’t put “Bitter” on the label. What do you do? What about “India” something? IPAs and ISAs are all the rage right now, and those are hoppy. Maybe slapping India on the outside might test better with shoppers? Although, how do you keep the beer geeks interested… Red Ale. India Red Ale. I don’t care if beer geeks will buy this beer expecting a big hoppy red beer and be disappointed. Fuck ’em. India Red Ale will sell, damnit!

Sure, it could be argued that maybe they should make a good, new, less bitter beer and sell that to the hop-o-phobes, or perhaps make an honest-to-Gord India Red Ale, but that’s not how Marketing Departments work. They see a lost sale because of the word “Bitter” on the can as money left on the table. They want that sale, and if a bit of creativity on the packaging can get it, then go for it. We’ll make the sweet beer later and sell that as well.

I imagine these decisions being made in a giant board room while some bearded brewers slowly shake their heads in disbelief at what they’re hearing, maybe while shedding a single, shockingly hoppy tear. They raise objections about “credibility” and “authenticity” but are shouted down. “You don’t understand marketing!” and “Sales trump some misguided notion of authenticity.”

I learnt that, and most of my ethics,
from Glengarry Glen Ross.

I’m not being overly melodramatic. Central City has been slowly drifting away from the craft beer universe for some time now. The beers haven’t suffered greatly yet, but their marketing and sales strategies are starting to sound vaguely big beer-y. All these decisions and actions make sense because those marketing guys, they’re pretty smart. They know how to sell stuff. Cars, lumber, beer. Whatever, it’s all stuff to sell. Product to move.

And they’re right. This change will drive sales. Up there when I said that CC is a business focused on profits I meant it. I just didn’t say the flip side: they used to be a business focused on making great beer. Sure, profits and great beer can both be focuses, but why do I get the feeling one is higher priority than the other, and that this isn’t how they started out.

In the end, this is change dictated by a Marketing Department bent on broadening the appeal of the CC Red Racer ESB product. That in and of itself doesn’t sound awful until you realize that “broadening the appeal” of beer was the very idea that gave us macro lager. I don’t want CC to go down that road. It might look like a nice road with expensive cars on it, but I know where it goes.

The moment that the Marketing Department dictated what was on the outside of the can, with no consideration or respect given to the beer inside… that was the turning point. It’s their brewery now. Next is what’s in the can.

Written by chuck

June 12th, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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Business of Craft Beer in BC

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I attended the BC Business of Craft Beer event yesterday (May 29th) and came away hopeful but not necessarily impressed. What made me hopeful was that this event even happened at all. That 250 people would give up both $75 and a mid-week afternoon to cram themselves into a downtown eastside bar on the off-hope of gleaning some sort of wisdom to help their craft beer business dreams is encouraging. Amazing, even.

Imagine traveling back in time to show your 1994 self cell phone photos of this event. Imagine what 1994 You would say? Well, I guess you’d probably say something like “Forsooth! What sort of foul devilry be in this magic box thoust hold?!” and then burn Future You as a witch. Or something like that. History isn’t my strong suit.

This despite the fact that I’ve watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like, 50 times.

In any event, the knowledge of what happened yesterday would likely stun even someone in the beer business a mere 20 years ago. “Craft Beer is big enough to have a mini-conference in 2014?” That’s encouraging. The unimpressed part is the realization that we have a long way to go.

The event featured a keynote by Ninkasi’s Jamie Floyd and two panel sessions: one on marketing craft beer and one on opening a craft brewery (aside: this panel featured Parallel 49, Bomber and Red Truck, all three of which have cash streams from other existing businesses to draw upon. They were less opening a craft brewery so much as expanding an existing business into brewing. I would have liked to see at least one small independent on this panel like Powell Street or Dageraad, but both David and Ben were probably too busy actually brewing beer to attend). Emcee Joe Wiebe did a good job asking focused questions of each panel, but anyone seriously contemplating opening a brewery needed more detail. Much more. More than could be provided in the few hours we had.

The main benefit of the event was the networking, which was frantically conducted in fifteen minute “beer breaks” between talks. I finally felt justified for ordering business cards, as I burnt through a solid twenty.

When I ran out, I panicked and handed out my credit card by mistake. In any event, y’all should contract me. I’m a marketing genius. Also, can I have my VISA back?

What would I change for next year? Well, I’d have more of everything. Turn the event into an actual day long mini-conference. Have breakout sessions for brewers vs suppliers vs retailers vs media. A long event naturally gives way to longer breaks which means more networking. Have me give the keynote. Small changes like these will make the conference 10x better.

I don’t want to come across as criticizing BC Business for this year’s event. The changes above weren’t possible to do this year because the conference wasn’t big enough. This year’s nano-conference had to happen first in order to make next year’s mini-conference possible. In a few years we’ll fill the convention centre, but you don’t start off over on the waterfront.

Lastly, I’d like to congratulate the panelists on their delicate answer to the worst question of the day: “How big should my brewhouse be?” About half the crowd groaned at the idiocy of this query so, for the benefit of the other half, I’ll answer it in a much more direct fashion so everyone knows what the faux pas was.

Q: “How big should my brewhouse be?”
A: “You’re shitting me, right? ‘How big should my brewhouse be?’ How can you stand up in this room and ask that question? Sit the fuck down, and do us all a favour by not opening your brewery. You clearly have no idea what you’re doing. For the benefit of anyone else in this room who thinks brewing capacity is a number some guy on a stage can just dictate to you: you don’t pick a brewhouse size. You calculate it.

Figuring out how big your brewhouse needs to be is one of the last steps in spec’ing a brewery. First you need to answer questions like: “What market are you targeting? Who are your current and prospective competitors? Do you need to package? Where will you be distributed? Where are you sourcing your brewhouse and tanks? What are your material and utility costs? Bottle vs can? How much space are you leasing? What is your lease cost? How much tank space do you have? How many employees do you need to support all this? How much will you charge for your beer? How much beer do you project selling in year one? Two? Three? Five? How did you reach those numbers?”

Once you answer all those (and more), you’ll find that the answers tell you how big your brewhouse should be, not me. If instead you’re a home brewer and just loving the idea of playing around on the equipment the big boys use, and thus figure the first step to opening a brewery is buying a brewhouse… save yourself two years of your life and all of your loved ones’ money and keep your day job.”

Phew. That felt good. It really did. Go ahead, ask me another, I don’t mind.

Written by chuck

May 30th, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Beer and You,Breweries

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Feature Beer: GIB Swing Span

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With the recent management changeover at Granville Island Brewing comes an even more recent change in marketing direction. Instead of keeping up tradition by producing large volumes of dreck in small bottles, and small volumes of great beer in large bottles, they’ve decided to mix things up by making okay beer in small bottles.

In fact, GIB’s first entry in the new “Under the Bridge” series, Swing Span Amber, isn’t just “okay.” It actually borders on “quite good.” A good beer from Molson in a 12oz bottle? Quelle surprise. For the newbies out there, that “Molson” back there isn’t a typo.

Not only is GIB owned by Creemore Springs who is, in turn, owned by Molson, but this beer was brewed in that giant building at First and Burrard with “MOLSON” written across the side of it. It was also brewed by Molson brewers, in massive 300 hectolitre tanks, between batches of Canadian. That’s pretty much makes it Molson beer.

Up until now that’s been a recipe for disaster, but not this time. This batch of Swing Span is a hoppy rich red ale that places a bulls-eye squarely on Parallel 49’s number one seller Gypsy Tears. P49’s beer is a superior offering, but Swing Span is not too far behind.

In fact, this beer is good enough that I will even forgo extensively raking Molson over the coals for the disingenuous title of the series. This beer was no more brewed “Under the Bridge” than Turning Point’s beer was brewed in “Stanley Park.” In fact, the style is also a lie. There’s nothing Amber Ale about this beer. It’s a full on Cascadian Red Ale… which is better, so I guess that one’s okay.

Why feature it, though, if it’s not even the best Cascadian Red Ale out there? Well, it shows that Molson, of all people, is capable of producing pretty darn good beer. After years of taking great recipes from GIB’s microbrewery on Granville Island and turning them into the insipid booze-water GIB became famous for, they finally did something right.

This could be a game changing beer, folks, especially if it sells well. Pay close attention to this one, because you know Molson is. Shit’s about to get real.

APPEARANCE Deep red/brown. High carb, long lasting thing head.
NOSE Rich malt, lots of hops. Some minerality.
TASTE Aggressively hopped up front with a chewy mid. Ends with a harsh minerality/metalicness
STATS 5.6% ABV / 45 IBU / Cascadian Red Ale
SHOULD I BUY IT? You know what? Yeah. You should. I’m as surprised by that recommendation as you are, frankly.

Brewery Granville Island
From Vancouver
Name Swing Span
Style Red Ale
SOA Now Bronze
SOA Potential n/a
Drink Now
Wait, GIB makes good beer now? Well, this one.
Availability Widespread
Cost $12.25+ per 6x12oz
Similar Beers Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears, Lighthouse Siren


Wait a second… did I just give an SOA to Molson? What’s going on here?
Is this backwards world? Will Four Winds release a riced-up, watered down light lager next?

Written by chuck

May 22nd, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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