Joe Sixpack: Craft-beer makers get crafty with marketing
CRAFT-BEER drinkers are falling prey to the same mindless "lifestyle marketing" that they reject in mainstream beer. Instead of the inane "taste the cold" TV advertising of Coors, they're getting suckered by the unfounded hype that surrounds rare, expensive, high-strength beers.
That's the indictment leveled by the authors of a new ratings book, The Beer Trials (Fearless Critic Media, $14.95).
The guide is co-written by Robin Goldstein, who earned a bit of notoriety a couple years ago when he exposed how easy it is to earn the influential Wine Spectator magazine's Award of Excellence. He created a Web site for a phony Italian restaurant and submitted a fake wine list along with a $250 fee.
Within months, he had his award.
If there's anything like that going on in the beer world, Goldstein and co-author Seamus Campbell don't offer any evidence here.
Their book mainly ranks beers based on blind tastings in which brands were not disclosed to participants. Tasters could judge quality without being influenced by the hype that typically surrounds expensive, limited-production brands.
"There is a clever subtlety in the ways that the most successful small producers are able to manipulate a sophisticated set of emotional levers to get us to feel a certain way about their products," they write. " . . . We convince ourselves that they're good."
Case in point: The Abyss from Deschutes of Portland, Ore.
The vintage-dated imperial stout is brewed with licorice and molasses and originally sold for $10. It was a smash hit when a mere 90 barrels were released in 2006, and it sold out immediately. Bottles soon turned up online for up to $40.
The beer sold out the next year, too, as distributors told consumers they'd have to order it quickly if they wanted the stout before it sold out.
But when Deschutes quadrupled production over the next two years, "the hype seemed to have vanished."
The Abyss didn't change, the authors say; it's still a great beer and worth its price tag. The difference is merely that The Abyss "is no longer playing hard to get . . . it's no longer the 'it' beer."
It's the same thing that has happened to wine years ago, when - because of hype and scarcity - prices broke free of their relationship to the cost of production.
This is exactly what I've worried about over the years as I've warned about the increasing winofication of beer, that as beer becomes increasingly "special," it risks losing its appeal as the simple Everyman's drink.
But there are two things that let me sleep at night:
First, beer is nowhere near as expensive as wine.
All of that hype - whether we're talking about Pliny the Younger, Westvleteren 12 or Three Floyds Dark Lord - involves bottles that may cost $20 to $30, tops. Compare that to wine, where $200 for a heavily hyped vintage is not unusual.
Moreover, beer prices are still largely related to quality. With few exceptions, the more you pay, the better the product, according to Beer Trials' ratings. (One of the exceptions: Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, at $190 a case, which received the lowest rating and was said to be "more in common with moonshine.")
Second, overly hyped beer is hardly a new phenomenon.
Back in the 1970s, there was a certain beer everyone was talking about that was unavailable east of the Mississippi. Bars fleeced their customers for a glass. People drove all the way out to Colorado to buy a case. They even made a movie about a trucker hauling an illegal load of the beer across country, called "Smokey and the Bandit."
That's right - good, ol' Coors.