Barley Mowat 

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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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Beer Fest is Best (in Surrey)

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You know what? I hate beer festivals. I really do. I mean, what’s there to like? Think of it from my perspective: I pay $20 to get in the door to an overpacked, sweltering municipal hall somewhere, and then I wander around in search of good beer only to discover that I’ve had every single one of the 100-or-so regular beers on tap already. I buy some extra tickets, discover that there are no seats to be had anywhere, and eventually give up and leave after the two or three casks run out.

By the time I’m back outdoors, the damage is around $30-$40 for approximately two proper pints of beer in what can only charitably be called the worst bar on the planet, and to think that people get mad when pint-equivalent prices approach $10 for rare beer at The Alibi.

Fat Tug Standard, amended. I think @knightafter just had a stroke.

All in all, a miserable time, except for those casks. Weren’t those neat? Well, now, what if you take that same beer festival, and replace all the regular production beers with one-off casks? Sweet! Just as surely as a regular beer fest is a waste of time, an all-cask one is brilliant. I’ll happily pay $40 to try 40oz of crazy, one-off ales, even if the event was in hell. As luck would have it, this weekend features pretty much exactly that.

This Saturday will bring 30-odd casks to Central City Brewing in Surrey, and as surely as your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, 30-odd casks bring all the Chucks to Surrey.

All joking aside, Surrey is great. It really is. Please don’t murder me. (Aside: why are these stock photo thugs wearing Google-coloured ski masks? Is Google now shaking people down for search results?)

Casks are a chance for brewers to screw around a bit and have some fun. While I can’t speak for every brewer out there, I’m going to guess that most of them didn’t start making beer with a dream of brewing the same damned beer every day for the rest of their lives. Like it or not, but that’s the job that stares down most commercial brewers when they come into the office in the morning.

Sure, head brewers frequently brew something small on the brewery’s test system, but these are more often than not for piloting new production beers or, even more depressing, recipe tweaks to existing mainstream offerings. Want to try fermenting some pineapple to make a fruity stout? Leave it for the casks.

That’s what I expect to see this Saturday: really freaking weird beer that was produced in tiny, tiny batches by talented brewers who might just be a little bored with their day jobs. This is fun. Brewing this beer is fun. Serving this beer is fun and, most importantly, drinking it is fun. Sure, that pineapple stout might taste like horrid, sweaty ass, but the fact it turned out horribly isn’t as important as the fact that someone tried to make it. With each sip, we learn a bit more about what works and what doesn’t, and beer in BC gets better as a result. That’s why I love a good cask fest: if you pay close attention, you can see the future of beer before it happens.

With the good comes the bad, though. Some breweries seem to miss the point and just phone it in to these events. Take note, breweries, I’ll be watching and judging you silently*. Got an IPA that you’ve fermented in a giant pumpkin called Gourd-on Lighthop? Gold star, my friend, gold star. Pale Ale dry-hopped with Citra? Boring, predictable, and very disappointing. Decided “Aw, fuck it” and you’re pouring your main production beers from a draught system? Watch out.

* Seriously, I make literally no noise when composing profanity-laced, libellous, diatribes for this blog.

Written by chuck

January 23rd, 2014 at 11:56 am

Posted in Beer and You

Tagged with

Focus on the LDB VII

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If you haven’t been over to the LDB’s website recently, you might have missed their full site redesign, which was quietly rolled out recently. The new site is slicker and sports a more minimalist design that I actually prefer to the old. However, that’s not all. There are also new features, including an easy-to-access list of recommended products (sure, it’s full of crap right now, but give it time), and the ability for the plebs (that’s you guys) to rank their inventory from 1 to 5 stars.

That last feature made the rounds of the local Molson marketing group shortly after the launch of the site, as the entire Molson catalogue was quickly marked up to 5/5 stars, including sub brands such as Granville Island and the lesser known Black Loon. Subtle, guys. Things eventually balanced out, but a few hundred beer geeks going through the beer section would be even better than the general public (hint hint… link).

So, did a new website lead to a new advertising strategy? Not even a little. Well, I guess the new site now has nine prominent advertising slots with which to ignore beer instead of the old seven, which is sort of a change. Our new total gives us:

Wine: +5
Liquor: +2
Beer: +0
Corporate: +1

One of those links goes to the now-permanent Savvy Shopper feature, which is basically “what’s cheap and still gets you there.” Seriously, pretty much anything you see here is best paired with big hair, stained t-shirts and cars on blocks; they might as well sort these listings by ounces of alcohol per dollar. In any event beer does make a small showing in the 31 discounted booze products, even if it’s mostly Bud.

Wine: 15
Beer: 4
Liquor: 12 (lumped the “coolers” in here. Seriously, though, what IS Palm Bay?)

I mean, aside from being the
drink of choice of these people.

In addition to those, the Spring Edition of Taste Magazine has been released. Weighing in at a hefty 180 pages, it contains ads for 185 products, and 6 of those are for beer! In fact, not only are there six more featured beers than last issue, and not only are these pretty decent beers, there’s a whole article about beer by none other than Joe Wiebe! Rock on, Joe!

Sure, Taste is still a meandering, wine-myopic tome (153/185 featured products are wine), and I’m reasonably sure some wines have now been featured multiple times over the past year, but progress is progress. If this rate of increased features keeps up, beer will contribute as much to the pages of Taste as it does to the LDB’s sales figures by, oh, 2017 or so.

Much more likely, though, is the all-Franzia Special Edition.

Taking all that into consideration we wind up with:

Wine: 33 (+6)
Beer: 3 (+1; rounded waaaay up)
Liquor: 12 (+2)
Corporate: 13 (+1)

Lastly, here are three great beers currently on the LDB website that they could have chosen to feature instead of laundry lists of wine that have been featured several times already (The Show, anyone?). Sure, Joe picked six interesting Vancouver-based brews in his article, but those are buried a bit deep for web-consumption.

Beer 1: Phillips Bottle Rocket ISA

Classic LDB attention to beer. They get the name right but neglect to tell you who brewed it. The brewery in this case is Phillips, and this is their new(ish) and impressive Bottle Rocket India Session Ale. It’s a milder, lower-ABV take on the now-common IPA style.

Price: $11.85 for 6x355ml cans
Availability: Very low; likely just starting to be stocked

Beer 2: Central City Pilsner

Need a nice lager to go with the warming weather? Try Central City’s new Pilsner. It’s a superb hoppy Pilsner that’s a near perfect example of the style. Crisp, light with subtle hops.

Price: $12.40 for 6x355ml cans
Availability: Widely available.

Beer 3: Townsite Said the Ale

Need a beer with an awesome storyline? Not too long ago CBC Radio 3 threw out an idea for beers named after bands. Everyone loved the idea, and it took off. The result? Several BC Breweries borrowed the CBC graphics and brewed actual beers that pay tribute to awesome indie bands. This guy is a play on “Said the Whale.” Indie music and craft beer: my two favourite things in the world together at last.

Price: $5.96 for 650ml of indie awesomeness
Availability: Select stores; might have to ask them to ship it to your store.

Written by chuck

May 21st, 2013 at 2:50 pm