A Silver Lining In The Obama, Gates, Crowley Beer Debacle…

With all of the punditry out there, I didn’t think it at all necessary to weigh in on the controversy brewing over the President’s decision to have beers with the participants in Gatesgate, as it’s being called here in the People’s Republic. Craft brewers from Harpoon to Sierra Nevada have been angling since the beery announcement was made to have their beers served at the unusual meeting. And while I think the obvious choices, after maligning (rightly or wrongly so) Our Fair City, would have been to give something from Cambridge a shot, say a John Harvard’s beer or better yet Benevolence from Cambridge Brewing, I’ll leave other eager pundits-in-training to debate that topic.

Despite Bud Lights, Red Stripes, and Blue Moons all around, I think there may be at least one unintended silver lining in all of this import/foreign owned beer drinking: transparency. Craft brewers often complain about how the corporate origins of faux-craft beers such as Blue Moon float beneath the brand radars of beer consumers. With the rash of public complaints and news articles appearing in the last few days, anyone not previously paying attention will now know that Blue Moon is not a little imported brand but is instead produced by mega-conglomerate MillerCoors and that Bud is owned by a foreign company. American crafts may not have made it into the White House this time, but in the battle over “who makes your beer,” this may very well be some priceless PR time…

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More Fear of Blue Moon (by MillerCoors!) From the Brewers Association…

Brewers Association founder and president Charlie Papazian is a passionate advocate for the small brewers his organization represents. He is also a prolific writer, having penned several books and magazine articles. Papazian also takes part in a new form of journalism/writing, writing a column on beer for Examiner.com. Launched in five cities, including Papazian’s nearby Denver, the Examiner.com is not associated with any particular news organization and the content is left to respective topic experts.

I’ve only recently started noting this column but one recent post caught my attention. Papazian generally writes about topics of interest to his organization and small brewers, a fair amount of industry talk actually. His most recent topic, “Blue Moon by MillerCoors ramps up marketing dollars,â€? was ostensibly about the recent news that MillerCoors plans to extend the marketing for the beer to the medium of television, a first for the carefully managed brand.

But a few throw-away lines in the lede and the rest of the article show how entrenched the association’s fear of Blue Moon is.

Blue Moon by MillerCoors is considered by many beer drinkers as a craft beer made by a small brewery. In actuality it’s a big brewer’s specialty brand that has enjoyed successful sales across the United States.

and

It will be interesting to watch whether MillerCoors Blue Moon can convince craft beer drinkers to switch from their local beers to theirs. Can advertising and marketing engage craft beer drinkers?

The unusual thing with these lines, and the entire tone of the Examiner piece and other similar pronouncements from the Brewers Association, is how they perceive Blue Moon as an interloper in the craft beer world as opposed to a brand that has actually made positive contributions to advancements in American beer culture. The Brewers Association, and similarly minded beer enthusiasts and craft brewers, appears to think that Blue Moon is a late-to-the-party attempt by a big brewer to co-opt the craft brewers’ mojo. In reality, the Blue Moon brand, as differentiated from the vast majority of craft-style beers from Anheuser-Busch and Miller, has actually been a very positive and pioneering force in the promotion of better beer in America. The truth is that there are few individual craft brands that have done as much as the Blue Moon Belgian White for changing the way average drinkers think about the pints in front of them.

I’ve been writing about The Curious Case of Blue Moon and how craft brewers have responded to it for several years. In an early BeerAdvocate column, I wrote:

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?

I think the point remains a strong one. And it leads to my other criticisms and comments:

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.

I also think that the Brewers Association should stick to defining ‘craft brewer,’ which it claims to only do so for internal, data purposes, and quit trying to define ‘craft beer.’ This subject too has been discussed several times before and members of the Brewers Association’s staff have privately admitted error in previous uses of the ‘craft beer’ moniker, which no longer appears as a definition on its site. I’ve adopted the BeerAdvocate definition of craft beer, which is “beer brewed in limited quantities often using traditional methods.� Under this definition, I think Blue Moon clearly qualifies as a craft beer.

I can certainly appreciate how craft brewers, especially certain larger producers, might be concerned over competing with a macro-brewery with a powerhouse brand, especially one that apparently now plans to release specialty products, including a 9-percent Grand Cru edition. But I think the Brewers Association needs to rethink its approach to attacking brands such as Blue Moon, especially as the craft brewing industry grows. And if there is such antipathy towards these big brewers, perhaps it is time for the Brewers Association to go public with its privately stated desire to remove the larger brewers from sponsorship and distribution aid for the group’s signature money-making event, the Great American Beer Festival. With the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, I remain interested in seeing whether the association’s membership takes some moments to let the staff know how they privately feel about these issues.

EDIT: A commenter noted another Papazian post that I was just reading as well, relating to a clip from the upcoming “Beer Wars” documentary. I thought I’d include that here for your review. I’m hoping that the film itself doesn’t just present the anti-Blue Moon side but also represents the many craft brewers who don’t view Blue Moon and Coors negatively.

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Label Art for Harpoon’s New Blue Moon Combatant…

As I noted last week, the Harpoon Brewery of Boston has created an unfiltered wheat beer to compete with the popular Blue Moon Belgian White by Coors. The brewery recently submitted its proposed label to the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) for approval. Unlike the Coors product, which advertises itself as a Belgian-style Wheat Beer, Harpoon’s UFO White promotes itself as an “Unfiltered Wheat Beer.” And as I suggested in the last article, Harpoon has placed an orange front and center in its logo for the White, in case you needed any further guidance on the target market for the brand. No firm dates have been established for the brand’s release, but with the approval of the labels for bottles and kegs, and the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference, to be held in Boston in two months, I’d expect to see the brand rolled out pretty soon.

UFO White

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Harpoon Brews Up A Blue Moon Killer…

I recently received word through sort of an unusual but reliable back channel that the Harpoon Brewery was planning to brew a new beer. The project is apparently of a very hush-hush nature at the Boston brewery. A new 100 Barrel series or Leviathan release you might ask? Nope. After years of being battered in the local market by the wildfire growth of the Blue Moon Belgian White (or “Blue Moon by Coors/MolsonCoors/MillerCoors” if you’re down with the Brewers Association’s quiet PR campaign), the folks at Harpoon have decided to expand their UFO line to include another beer: UFO White. Details surrounding the beer remain very sketchy as news of the beer was not meant for public release quite yet. I imagine you’ll be seeing this beer pushed very hard on draft in the local Boston market in an attempt to retake some of the omni-present Blue Moon handles secured by Coors.

Now, I’m pretty much on record in support of the development and promotion of Blue Moon by the Coors people. While not the most flavorful beer I’ve ever had, I think Blue Moon is a reliable choice when in a pinch at a chain restaurant and it has contributed to expanding the reach of better beer into demographics where it hasn’t previously succeeded. I’ve also been supportive of how Coors has chosen to treat and promote the brand, say in contrast to the efforts of Anheuser-Busch related to its “faux-craft” products.

With this said, Harpoon’s decision to brew this beer in an attempt to compete head-to-head with the Blue Moon juggernaut couldn’t have been an easy one. I imagine the sales meetings at Harpoon in Boston must have devolved into grumbles about how Blue Moon has been kicking the UFO brand’s butt in local bars and restaurants.

First developed and released in 1998, Harpoon’s UFO Hefeweizen was apparently inspired “by the cloudy beers drank in many German beer gardens.” While German hefeweizens (in their most popular style) are distinguished by their fruity/clovey/banana-y flavors and aromas, UFO ‘Hefeweizen’ is not really a hefe at all. Instead, the UFO lead product is actually an American-style wheat beer, one of the few global beer styles (perhaps the only one) that I personally find little to no redeeming value in. So take my criticism of the brand with that grain of salt in mind. To Harpoon’s credit, the brewery has never claimed (beyond the product’s name) to have brewed a traditional hefeweizen. And despite my lack of fondness for the brand, UFO has proven popular with drinkers and spawned a local “1-2 punch,” along with the Harpoon IPA. Harpoon’s sales staff could sell both products, side-by-side, each complementing the other and without any real competition between the brands.

Enter the Harpoon White. As I said, Harpoon’s decision to release this beer is a little risky if for no other reason than the very real fear of brand cannibalization. I think consumer’s are going to have a difficult time distinguishing between the brands (except perhaps by a lemon versus an orange garnishment, if Harpoon follows the presentation model perfected by Coors and Blue Moon). Even if the products taste very different (no easy feat when you’re trying to keep a broad appeal among your target audience here), the White inevitably will cannibalize some of the UFO Hefeweizen’s market presence and brand share. I haven’t seen any recent numbers on the brand, but Harpoon may have decided that the UFO Hefeweizen’s numbers, if dwindling or growing only slowly, may be worth sacrificing if a witbier product can cut into Blue Moon’s substantial success.

Another odd turn here is the irony of the situation. After several years where America’s largest breweries were trying to recreate the efforts (and thereby the success) of craft brewers, we now have a craft brewer trying to emulate the successful efforts of one of the world’s largest brewers. That’s quite a compliment for the folks at Coors…

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Guys Most Likely To Change Your Mind About Big Brewery Beer – The SandLot Profile

The heart of Denver’s popular LoDo District plays host to an unlikely brewery whose brewers are quietly challenging beer conventions in unlikely ways. Tucked away deep in the right field corner of Coors Field, the Sandlot Brewery has won almost as many Great American Beer Festival medals, including the Small Brewery of the Year Award, as any other craft brewer. At the brewery’s helm, co-brewmasters John Legnard and Tom Hail find themselves in an interesting position. The Sandlot is famously known as the birthplace of the juggernaut Blue Moon brand. Coors’ brewmaster Keith Villa developed Blue Moon Belgian White at the Sandlot in 1995. When it proved with the public, Coors took the brand national where it exploded onto the better beer scene. The brand’s success has led parent company MillerCoors to rebrand the brewpub as the Blue Moon Brewing Company at the Sandlot.

Sandlot’s story would be impressive if it ended with Blue Moon, but that is just the beginning. While appreciating Blue Moon and its success—the brewery continues to brew the brand, its seasonals, and test batches—Legnard and Hail have struck their own brewing path. The brewery, which is operated separately from the adjacent pub, “flies below the radar,� according to Legnard. Or as Hail, a master of entertaining analogies, once described the corporate relationship to me, Sandlot is the “Puerto Rico of Coors,� owned by the brewing giant but in some manner distinct from it.

“The higher ups know who we are and appreciate what we do and leave us to create and brew what we wish,� says Legnard. This independence allows the guys to brew some of the nation’s best small batch lagers in an impressive range of styles, including the sharp Barmen Pilsner, named after Adolph Coors’ hometown. Many of the lagers fall under the Brewmaster’s Special series. In contrast to trendy barrel aged alcohol bombs, Sandlot is a place to find well-executed traditional styles. In a timely Olympic comparison, Hail suggests that “[w]e don’t invent the moves, we just try to perfect them.� In addition to its outstanding lagers (the appreciation for which Hail compares to “pretty girls who don’t need makeup�), Sandlot also produces a flavorful Scottish-style ale, an ESB, and a stout, among others.

Despite their success, the Sandlot brewers have failed to receive the public acclaim accorded to other award-winning brewers. In fact, they’ve occasionally been subjected to the derision of beer geeks, including journalists, who summarily dismiss their beers due to the big brewery affiliation. After firing back with beers named “Clueless Beer Writer� and “Most Beer Judges Are Bone Heads� and occasional chiding on Internet websites, Legnard is ready to let the beer speak for itself. “We always tell people, ‘judge us by the beers we brew not who owns the place.’� Cheers to that.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VIII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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