Molson Coors To Increase Its Focus On The Better Beer Segment

Reports in the Wall Street Journal and the Rocky Mountain Daily News today bring news that the Molson Coors Brewing Company has incorporated a high-end beer division to compete in the better beer segment. The RMDN article reports:

Coors Brewing Co. plans to roll out upscale beers via a new Golden-based unit called AC Golden Brewery.

The new “brand incubation company” will “introduce above-premium beers to the marketplace using a new approach” that’s less splashy than typical “national rollouts,” according to a Coors announcement obtained by the Rocky Mountain News that was distributed to company employees and distributors.

The news was first reported by Beer Marketer’s Insights Express, a trade industry publication.

Golden-based Coors’ chief brands are Coors Light, Keystone Light and Blue Moon.

Incorporation papers filed in April with the Colorado secretary of state’s office list an AC Golden Brewing Co. formed by Pete Coors. Coors is chairman of Coors Brewing and vice chairman of parent Molson Coors.

According to the Coors announcement, AC Golden Brewery will introduce its brands in the similar stealth way Coors built up its Blue Moon brand. A number of craft beer drinkers who enjoy Blue Moon Belgian White Ale aren’t aware it’s a Coors product.

Coors has long been slow to adjust to changes in the beverage alcohol market (Aspen Edge anyone?). Despite its missteps, Coors has a long proven dedication to the better beer segment. Check out the Beer Scribe interview with Tom Hail, brewer for the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field to learn more about Coors’ history in the better beer segment.  I look forward to seeing what offerings this division serves up and whether the brewery continues to treat its specialty releases with respect.

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The Curious Case of Blue Moon…

Forty years ago, people described Coors’s flagship Banquet Beer as having a ‘mystique’ to it. Loyal fans would prod, coax, and bribe their westward traveling friends to lug cases of the beer back to the East Coast. The ‘Coors mystique’ may seem long out-of-date now but the Colorado brewery is slowly building a new mysterious brand.

The buzz in the beer industry is all about the explosive growth of craft beer. In the last three years, the category has boomed with 31-percent growth. While the news is a well-deserved reward for craft brewers, the accolades have obscured some of the more significant repercussions of their accomplishments. In response to the American palate’s sweeping shift away from lifeless beers, most corporate breweries have buried their heads in Olympic-size fermentation tanks or released their own ill-conceived, faux-craft brands. The approaches have seen little success, save for one.

The worst kept secret among hardened beer geeks is that Blue Moon Belgian White is brewed by the Coors Brewing Company (now Molson Coors), but word has not yet leaked out to the general drinking public. What people may not know is that the wildly popular Blue Moon is probably America’s best-selling craft beer brand. You may ask, ‘but what about Sam Adams Boston Lager, the quintessential craft beer?’ Despite Boston Beer’s recent successes, I’d wager that more orange-accented pints of Colorado’s sleeper wheat beer pour from American taps then do glasses of the American patriot’s namesake lager. (Both breweries declined to release actual production numbers).

Like a flush hipster who toils to keep his conservative parental benefactors a secret, Blue Moon is in no rush to take you home to meet momma and poppa Coors. Blue MoonCoors employees created the brand in 1995 at the company’s own brewpub, the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field. Now produced under the Blue Moon Brewing Company label and brewed in three locations, Coors has enjoyed steady growth with the brand, fueled in part by its intentional disassociation from the brand. And the Coors people willingly admit this. “It’s not that we hide the fact that it’s brewed by Coors,” says Blue Moon’s Brand Director, Ken Hehir. “We’re just not openly advertising that fact.”

And here starts the craft beer lover’s political problem. Should it matter that Blue Moon is brewed by America’s third largest brewery, one that produces more than 23-million barrels of beer per year? Countless dedicated craft beer drinkers have seen a Blue Moon tap handle, ordered and enjoyed the brand, only to later discover the Coors connection. While they certainly have an understandable objection about truth in labeling (a complaint they can also lodge with many contract-brewed craft brands), it doesn’t change the fact they probably liked the beer when they tasted it blind to beer politics. In the end, shouldn’t the question always be, is the beer any good?

While popularity is certainly no indication of quality, an honest review of Blue Moon shows it to be an entirely respectable wheat beer. Brewed with malted white wheat, oats, coriander, and orange peel, the unfiltered beer is a pleasant mix of floral, citrus, light wheat and yeast flavors that are well suited for summertime enjoyment.

In dismissing Blue Moon as another big brewery poseur brand, contrarian beer lovers miss two larger points. First, in reporting the achievements of American craft brewers, the Brewers Association doesn’t include Blue Moon and its double-digit growth volume. While Blue Moon may not qualify for membership in the ‘craft beer’ club, it’s certainly a charter member of the ‘better beer’ segment. When added to the tally sheet, the Blue Moon brand’s explosive growth is perhaps the best evidence of a sea change in the American palate.

The second point is perhaps the least appreciated. In contrast to the sometimes-juvenile efforts of America’s two largest breweries, Coors has long treated the Blue Moon brand in a remarkably innovative manner: with respect. Blue Moon’s artistic point-of-sale materials, refusal to run television ads, and its dedication to the ritual of serving the luminous wheat beer in proper, shapely glassware speaks to the gentle, considered treatment of this brand. In comparison, one need only look at the absurd tap handles for Anheuser-Busch’s own line of seasonal draft beers to get the sneaking suspicion the brewing giant is trying to make craft beer look like a bunch of clowns.

In the new era of craft beer, the Coors mystique has clearly returned with good reason. Only this time, beer lovers don’t have to get their traveling friends to make beer runs for them.

Article appeared in the July 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Kudos to Barclay Perkins and Ron Pattinson…

I know that mutual back-slapping is de rigueur in the ‘blogosphere’ (god do I hate that word), but I don’t really consider myself a ‘blogger’ (hate that word too). With that said, I’ve been keeping an eye on beer-related blogs for the past year or so, starting with my colleague Jay Brooks’ bulletin. The recent exponential rise in the number of beer blogs has diluted my interest in the topic. After perusing a thread on BeerAdvocate, I came across a beer blog curiously entitled, ‘Shut Up about Barclay Perkins.’ I have no idea what the blog is about except to say that its author has written some very interesting thoughts on topics I long considered to be stale and worthy of a drain pour.

One post, ‘Are you a Stalinist or a Trotskyist,’ in late July was one of the inspirations for the column I wrote for the September issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

A recent post, simply titled ‘Epiphany,’ contained some startlingly simple yet erudite words on how brewers in the celebrated brewing region of Franconia in Germany have managed to create wonderfully expressive beers with only a single malt and hop variety.

The author, Ron Pattinson, is all the more interesting because he is also a beer historian and a beer travel writer. Ron’s historical research is fascinating for beer and history geeks who want to gain greater appreciation about the development of beer, recipes, breweries, and the changing palates of beer drinkers over the course of centuries of brewing.

Any beer lover who has traveled to Bamberg is likely familiar with Ron’s travel writing. Along with the recently departed John White, Ron is a great chronicler of German pubs. His ‘European Beer Guide’ website is an excellent resource for novices and seasoned travelers visiting Franconia and a host of other European beer destinations.

So I wanted to say ‘cheers’ to Ron for his efforts.  Now only if Fred Eckhardt would start a blog…

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Harpoon’s Warning Alert Level Goes From Yellow To Peach…

The Harpoon Brewery here in Boston issued a consumer warning today regarding the release of its most recent ‘100 Barrel Series’ offering. The advisory reads a little like the welcome speech given to new bomb squad employees.

Since offering the Harpoon 100 Barrel Series Pêche, a limited edition product, in May, Harpoon has been notified by a few loyal customers that a small number of the 22 ounce Pêche bottles have broken under pressure, creating a potential hazard to handlers and consumers. The risk is not from the beer, but from the added pressure in the bottle caused by the secondary fermentation. To protect the safety of our loyal customers and beer lovers everywhere, we have decided to issue this warning along with safe-handling instructions for all 22 ounce Pêche bottles. In addition, we have removed existing inventory from wholesalers who carry the Pêche, our brewery stores in Windsor and Boston, and have instructed our wholesalers to pick up any remaining bottles at retail outlets throughout New England and New York.

If you have any 22 ounce Pêche bottles, please carefully un-cap the bottles – if possible without moving them. We would recommend wearing protective eyewear and/or shrouding the bottle with a hand towel while un-capping. The beer itself is fine. Once you safely remove the cap and release the pressure, feel free to enjoy it. If you choose not to consume it and would like us to refund your purchase price, simply send us an e-mail at pecherefund@harpoonbrewery.com with your name, mailing address, the location and the approximate date of your purchase and number of bottles purchased; and we will promptly send you a refund.

If you have any additional questions, please call Jaime Schier, Quality Control Manager, at 888-427-7666 x-538 or email at jschier@harpoonbrewery.com.

We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your loyalty to Harpoon.

Al Marzi, VP of Brewing Operations

Harpoon’s Quality Control Manager, Jaime Schier, elaborated about the problem on BeerAdvocate:

Some details about what happened: the issue involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was conducted by our own house yeast: unfortunately the bottles we use for the 100 Barrel Series aren’t designed for such a product, and there is a very small number of them that have cracked under the added carbonation pressure. If you like the beer, we want you to know that it’s character hasn’t changed from the time we bottled it, it just has a higher carbonation level than we intended, so if you want you can just remove the crown to release the pressure inside, chill it and enjoy. In the vast majority of the bottles there’s no problem whatsoever, the beer tastes just as it did the day we packaged it with the exception that it’s more highly carbonated.

Harpoon’s had a bit of a rough go with its specialty beers recently. Some may recall that the Pre-Prohibition Lager, offered as ‘The Official Beer of the 2007 American Beer Fest,’ had to be dumped prior to sampling at the festival due to autolysis. So if you’re interested in the light-flavored Peche, check with your local beer bars.

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Craft Beer Continues Its Tear…

The Brewers Association has just released its mid-year numbers and craft beer has continued its impressive growth streak. The highlights of the release, which is quoted below, include the following feats:

• Craft beer growth continues to break records with a volume increase of 11% and dollar increase of 14% in the first half of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006.

• For the first time ever craft beer has exceeded more than a 5% dollar share of total beer sales.

• In the first half of 2007 the beer category sold one million more barrels with 400,000 of these new barrels produced by craft brewers.

• Craft beer sales, in barrels, for the first half of 2007 was 3.768 million compared to 3.368 million barrels sold in the first half of 2006

The numbers for the craft beer segment continue to impress, especially the growth in
dollar share of beer sales (a crucial indicator too often cast aside for the focus of volume).

Dollar Share

On a final note, Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s new director of craft beer marketing, has done a solid job of improving the way the trade association promotes the craft beer industry. This mid-year release, with pretty graphs and all, is a product of her continuing efforts to better promote craft beer.

Boulder , CO – August 15, 2007 – The Brewers Association, the trade association that tabulates industry data for craft brewers, reports craft beer sales and growth continue to break records. The volume of craft beer sold in the first half of 2007 rose 11% compared to this same period in 2006 and dollar growth increased 14%. For the first time ever craft beer has exceeded more than a 5% dollar share of total beer sales.

Overall, the U.S. beer industry sold one million more barrels in the first half of 2007 compared to 2006, with 400,000 of these new barrels produced by craft breweries. This equates to 3.768 million barrels of craft beer sold in the first two quarters of 2007 compared to 3.368 million barrels sold in the first half of 2006.

Scan data from Information Resources, Inc. provide additional data points that confirm strength for the segment. Craft beer sales in the supermarket channel through July 15th, 2007 showed a 17.4% increase in dollar sales compared to the same period in 2006. This growth in sales was higher than any other alcohol beverage category.

“The 1,400 small, independent and traditional craft brewers in the U.S. have hit their stride,? said Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association.“United States craft brewers are making many of the world’s best beers, and the marketplace is responding.?

Coupled with the growth statistics has been a tidal wave of media coverage in the first half of 2007 including NBC’s Today Show on July 3 stating, “Beer is the new wine and can go with just about any food.? Additionally, Gallup, in its latest poll on alcohol beverages, announced for the second straight year that “Beer Again Edges Out Wine as Americans’ Drink of Choice.?

Julia Herz, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewers Association concluded, “Craft beer market share is steadily and consistently growing. A grassroots movement is responsible for this success as appreciators continue to trade up.?

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The definition of craft beer as stated by the Brewers Association: An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional. Small = annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition. Independent = Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer. Traditional = A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Based in Boulder, Colo., U.S.A., the Brewers Association (BA) is the not-for-profit trade and education association for American craft brewers and the community of beer enthusiasts. Visit the website: www.beertown.org to learn more. The association’s activities include events and publishing: World Beer Cup®; Great American Beer Festival sm ; Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America®; National Homebrewers Conference; National Homebrew Competition; American Craft Beer Week (May); Zymurgy magazine; The New Brewer magazine; and books on beer and brewing. The Brewers Association has an additional membership division of 12,000+ homebrewers: American Homebrewers Association.

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