Another Craft Brewer Response to Blue Moon Belgian White?

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First, the news a few months back that our local Harpoon Brewery would be releasing a Belgian-style witbier to compete with the butt-kicking competitor from MillerCoors, the Blue Moon Belgian White. That beer is now starting to hit store shelves in the Boston area. Now, from across the country comes word that the Alaskan Brewing Company of Juneau is releasing its first new beer in two years. And you guessed it, the beer’s name: Alaskan White Ale. I didn’t see a lot of Blue Moon, or any other macro beer frankly, while traveling in Alaska last fall so I can’t say that this release is due to the success of Blue Moon. But I imagine the Summer Ale is also facing stiff competition in the brewery’s continental markets, especially as we recently learned of how tough things are for the Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brewers Alliance.

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The Post Where I Say Nice Things About Harpoon…A Quad Review.

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Because it is my hometown brewery, I spend a lot of time talking about the Harpoon Brewery with friends and visitors. And while people often perceive my thoughts as being critical of the brewery, I consider them given more in a constructive vein. See, I want Harpoon to succeed, but I also want the brewery to offer a little more in the flavor department with its beers (although this criticism mainly related to the brewery’s year-round offerings). So it was with some excitement that I reported last summer about the brewery’s foray into stronger beers, with its Leviathan series. At that time, I wrote:

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.

quad.jpgSo far in the series we’ve seen a revamping of the Triticus, originally brewed with the BeerAdvocate guys, a nice Imperial IPA, and a very solid Baltic Porter. So this month has seen availability of the most recent release, the Harpoon Quad. Listed at 11.75-percent alcohol on the label (although brewer Scott Shirley told the good folks at that it was actually 12.6-percent alcohol), the Quad is a bruiser. But we’ll get to the flavor in a moment

The Quad style bears a moment of mention, not so much for what it is but perhaps for what it is not. If not a creation of American craft brewers than at least a rebranding, the quadruple/quadrupel style has a pretty sketchy history, even compared to other styles about which it turns out we know very little. Up until a few years ago, beer lovers used to call quadrupel-style beers either trappist ales, trappist-style ales, or abt-style. There was inevitably a bit of friction with the seven, then six, now seven again European trappist breweries. So a name change was required to describe this strong, malty, phenolic beer.

The style doesn’t appear in the Brewers Association’s recent 2009 style guidelines release (though curiously a quadruple Pilsener is referenced, whatever abomination of man that might portend). The BJCP folks also do not list quadrupel as an independent category, but instead place it in the Belgian Specialty Ale grouping. BeerAdvocate lists beers of the style as Quadrupels and it lists nearly 90 examples, including some of the site’s most highly regarded beers, such as Westvleteren 12 and Rochefort 10. BA describes the style this way:

Inspired by the Trappist brewers of Belgium, a Quadrupel is a Belgian style ale of great strength with bolder flavor compared to its Dubbel and Tripel sister styles. Typically a dark creation that ranges within the deep red, brown and garnet hues. Full bodied with a rich malty palate. Phenols are usually at a moderate level. Sweet with a low bitterness yet a well perceived alcohol. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 9.0-13.0%

It’s not really clear how quads are distinguished from Belgian Strong Dark Ales, which the site describes as:

On the same path as the Belgian Dark Ale but obviously higher in alcohol with more of an all around character. The alcohol character can be deceivingly hidden or can be very bold and in your face. Look for lots of complexity within a delicate palate. Hop and malt character can vary, most are fruity and may have mild dark malt flavors. Phenols will range from minimal to high and most will be light on the hops. All in all most are spicy and alcoholic. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 7.0-15.0%

So maybe this is one of those times where we put style guidelines aside and just decide whether we enjoy the beer on a personal level (a bit of a rarity in this rate-happy world). Harpoon describes its Leviathan Quad this way:

[F]ermented with a blend of two traditional Trappist yeasts. A mixture of two-row pale malts, caramel malts, and special aromatic malts gives the Quad its richness and texture. The subtle hop flavor imparted from Brewer’s Gold hops lingers in the background and provides just enough bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. The addition of imported Belgian Dark Candi Syrup rounds out the beer, giving the Quad its full body and deep auburn color. Expect notes of honeyed dry fruit with peppery phenols in the aroma, a velvet-like mouthfeel, and a superbly drinkable beer…Original gravity 26.2, ABV 11.75%, 44 IBU’s.

So let’s get to the beer. I bought a 4-pack of the brand for about $10 at a local package store, stored cool. Pours with a slightly murky/hazy purplish rouge color, mild but active carbonation. Aroma is very complex and playful, with immediate notes of the classic Trappist yeast strain, big deep sweet malts, and numerous fruits and phenols, from banana to bubble gum. A real pleasure just to smell. There is the slightest hint of a peppery spiciness deep in the beer but is pretty overwhelmed by a substantial but not overbearing alcohol note. The alcohol is not hot in the aroma but adds a pleasant warmth. Mouthfeel is medium to heavy and easily coats the entire mouth with malt sweetness, with some carbonation bites rounding out the edges. As it warms, I’m noticing some slightly sour notes in the aroma. Flavor waits for a second and then explodes in all directions, unleashing a torrent of banana and fruity tones, then a splash of European malt sweetness, followed by that previously hidden black pepper spiciness, and then ends with a surprisingly bitter finish mixed with big alcohol notes. With these descriptions, such a beer could easily devolve into a completely undrinkable mess. The Harpoon Quad doesn’t; instead it just shows you sharp glimpses of each before retracting into a balanced finish. While all of these notes mellow as the beer warms (and it sweetens considerably), I think the Harpoon Quad is still a pretty young beer. I’m going to lay down my remaining bottles for a few months and check on their quality. I would imagine that the beer could easily lay down for a few years. And considering that I had a nearly five-year-old bottle of Harpoon’s Barleywine (Release Four of the 100 Barrel Series) that aged beautifully, it’s a pretty safe bet.

The next beer in the Leviathan series, a huge Bohemian Pilsner, will be out in a couple of months. Using German pilsner malt and Saaz hops, the beer will clock in at 10-percent. I’m generally not a fan of imperializing classic German styles but look forward to trying the next release after the solid to excellent Leviathan releases I’ve had to date.

With its year-round line, the brewery has proven that it can make very approachable beers for a wide-audience, often as a bridge from macro brands to the craft world. With the Leviathan series, Harpoon has demonstrated its ability to break out of that mold and to craft solid versions of styles popular with beer geeks. For its next act, I’d like to see Harpoon show mastery of the ground in-between. While I look forward to trying the UFO White when it debuts at the end of this month, another addition to the brewery’s regular portfolio of IPA, Ale, Brown Ale, UFO hefeweizen, Munich Dark, and Raspberry Hefeweizen is sorely needed. With its sustained sales and trim portfolio, I appreciate that the brewery likely has no real interest in adding to its year-round offerings. But that can’t keep local beer drinkers from hoping…

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The Massachusetts Brewers Guild’s ‘UltiMAte’ Beer Dinner…

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I’ve received several notices in the last few weeks about an upcoming event hosted by the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. The Guild, which is an organization that began operations in early 2008, is comprised of more than twenty Bay State breweries and brewpubs and is designed to help promote the efforts of local craft brewers.

While the Guild has been pretty quiet for the past year, having held some meetings and done a little public outreach, its efforts appear to be ramping up. The Guild’s website is a little sparse right now but it does contain some information about its first big event. On February 28th, the Guild will hold a beer dinner at The Exchange Conference Center near the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. The event will include several limited release beers (maybe even Harpoon’s new UFO White?), a beer sampling hour with hors d’oeuvres, and a four-course meal with beer pairings.

While I certainly applaud the formation and development of the Guild and support its mission, it’s difficult to tell who the organization is targeting with its first major event. At $125 per person and with business casual attire recommended, this can hardly be considered an effort to appeal to the general public. The price for the event, with the modest details presented to date, seems extraordinarily high, even before recalling the poor present state of the economy (multiples higher than Extreme Beer Festival ticket prices and even higher than the $95 wallop that gets you a ticket to the SAVOR event in D.C.). Perhaps the event will serve as a fundraiser for some other needy organization (other than the Guild itself), I cannot yet say. More likely, there will be a few comped tickets handed out and a lot of wholesalers and retailers chatting each other up with their respective brands in hand.

With this said, I look forward to hearing more about the event and how the Guild plans to promote craft beer and craft brewers in the Commonwealth (especially whether it plans to produce a guide to state breweries, as has been done successfully by many other city and state brewers guilds).

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Label Art for Harpoon’s New Blue Moon Combatant…

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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…

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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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