Ring the bell and prospective beer drinkers reflexively reach for cases of light or premium American lagers.            

They associate yellow, fizzy pilsner derivatives with beer. Consumers are conditioned to reach for these beers through calculated campaigns for big brewers. Without belaboring the point or further stretching the tortured Ivan Pavlov analogy, the association between macro-produced lagers and the greater classification of beer is well-embedded in American alcohol culture.

While consumers enjoy a range of domestic, foreign and ethnic cuisines on a weekly basis, sometimes accompanied by an array of wine brands, beer is an exception to our American preference for diverse gustatory experiences. The general consumer view of beer as a product totally lacking in value and defining character disturbs craft and imported beer producers. In a variety of isolated efforts, these producers are attempting to reverse this unsettling trend.

Consumer Education

While educating your staff about the values and selling points attendant to beer is crucially important, it is only one part of a successful sales formula. When it comes time to improve beer sales in your restaurant or create additional sales opportunities in the aisles of your store, retailers and owners have to make consumers appreciate the value of their beer portfolio. One time-tested but under-valued sales approach is to educate consumers about the benefits and values of beer. A consumer who understands that differences exist between beers is a profitable commodity in short-supply. In short, an educated customer is a good customer.

Consumer education serves many purposes. First and foremost, education efforts teach prospective buyers that beer is a diverse product category encompassing many styles and flavors. A breadth of offerings sure to please the palates of any imbiber. Outreach efforts inform consumers that the brewing industry's offerings are not limited and defined by the overwhelming crowd of popular lager brands. The more consumers appreciate beer as a value product, the more they feel comfortable breaking out of blind, habitual brand loyalty and experimenting with craft or imported beers.

Consumer education provides another service as a challenge to severely entrenched stereotypes and negative impressions related to beer. The beer industry has a serious public relations problem, and it is one of its own making. The popular image of beer, in terms of perceived sophistication and price-worthiness, generally hovers between that of beef jerky and Cheez Whiz. Influenced by the industry's obsession with high volume sales, hyper-competitive product pricing and lowest common denominator advertising, consumers associate beers with cheapness and not value or quality. An unintended, but entirely foreseeable consequence of this contemptible trifecta is that beer's already bruised public image works against higher margin sales.

None of this, however, is news to anyone in the beer industry. The issue remains as it has for years - what can be done to improve beer's public image? It is a complicated question brewers of better beer find themselves wrangling with on a regular basis. In the face of industry supported setbacks, such as the World Beer Games sponsored in large part by Interbrew, brewers rely upon educational efforts to foster a sense of beer appreciation in consumers. Possible approaches are myriad, and limited only by the public relations savvy of the promoter. Lawrence Miller of the Otter Creek Brewing Company puts it simply: "We are doing our best to help the consumer understand about specialty beer, which helps them understand why it is worth spending more and what the differentiation is. And we do that through beer festivals, articles, beer dinners, which are more formal, and by people visiting the brewery."

Education Approaches

It is part of teaching dogma that people learn in different ways. Some thrive in structured learning environments, while others prefer informal approaches. It is unsurprising that novice students also approach the subject of beer in different ways. Industry education efforts sometimes take the form of structured classes, replete with dense textbooks and thorough lectures, while other slants take a "hands-on" approach, a simple glass-to-mouth-to- brain method of instruction.

When it comes to educating the beer novice, sometimes the most effective outreach efforts are the simplest. Basic educational efforts expose consumers to new flavors in different styles and brands of beer, while giving a simple overview of the brewing process. "It's not about educating people about beer as much as exposing them to it," says Phil Baxter of the Four Points Sheraton in Los Angeles. The art of beer appreciation is enormously subjective and often daunting for beginners. It is with these anxious individuals in mind that many pub owners have designed approachable education programs.

The casual approach often suits teachers as well as students. On Chicago's north side, an unassuming tavern stands as a beacon for weary travelers and beer enthusiasts. While the Map Room's walls and shelves are covered with travel books and magazines, the real adventure here lies in the dizzying array of craft and imported beer taps and bottles. Before the Map Room became one of America's foremost beer bars, owner Laura Blasingame studied the subject of beer herself. During the development of her appreciation for beer, a friend told Blasingame about a local homebrewer who might be able to help her learn about the subject. The fortuitous contact proved highly influential in shaping the bar's development. "So he came in one day, it was a cold day in February, and there were like four people here. I made everyone sit down quietly at the bar and listen to (the homebrewer) talk about ten different beers and that's where Beer School was born. He opened up our eyes big time and we we're like, "wow".

Ever since the chance meeting, the Map Room has held a monthly Beer School where a local brewer stops by to discuss beer and brewing for a limited audience of up to 50 people. For $15, students sample ten beers presented on a single theme - a particular style or group, such as pilsners or fruit beers. Previous beer schools have focused upon American ales versus British ales. Men and women ranging in age from their early twenties to late forties, usually Map Room regulars, mainly populate the gatherings. Blasingame notes that many of the students later became Map Room regulars because of their attendance at Beer School. "All the people who attend Beer School, it makes them want to drink the higher end beers," she says.

A similar approach is employed in the "Fireside Chat" series held at The Fireplace restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts. Twice a month, customers and staff gather around the hearth for an hour long presentation on wine, spirits or beer. In a twist on the conventional beer presentation theme, owner Jim Solomon places great importance on the interaction between beer and food. "We brought in someone from Anchor Steam, Magic Hat, Guinness and Harpoon to talk about the differences in porters and ales, and to do sampling and discuss some food pairings. We try to match some foods we think will work particularly well with the beers we are pouring."

Perhaps America's most successful and innovative education series occurs at another of America's best beer bars. From "Ten Stouts of November" to "Art in Beer" to "Philosophy on Tap," the Brickskeller in Washington, DC, is a leading and entertaining force in the beer education movement. Far from presenting the typical chatter about hops and malt, the Brick's owner, Dave Alexander, strives to present events targeted at beer lovers, intellectuals and the city's cosmopolitan crowd.

The Brick's education events are so popular that many sell out weeks in advance. To present a wide-range of interesting and creative beer events, Alexander calls upon the all-stars of the brewing industry to address his customers. After teaming up with eclectic brewer Larry Bell of the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, the Brickskeller presented an astonishing ten different stouts for attendees. In the "Title IX Invitational", Alexander called upon female brewers and owners to help celebrate "Women in Brewing Month". For the Brick's "Art in Beer" program, brewers and industry insiders from both coasts met to discuss the marketing, advertising and design of beer related products.

The Brick's events are great opportunities to generate new business and to foster a spirit of cooperation among craft brewers, according to Bill Covaleski of the Victory Brewing Company. "We try and do events with other breweries. We did something in Washington, DC, last October with the Washington Art Director's Club. It was a two night event at the Brickskeller Tavern. It was ourselves, Rogue and Flying Fish, and we told folks how we marketed our beers, showed them our labels and the thought process behind it. But the whole time, we were sipping our beers and so were they. So we were developing an audience. I think it was a win-win situation. They came to learn about how we market, yet we walked away with new consumers."

While barrooms have long served as forums for debate, with topics ranging from the revolutionary to the ridiculous, the Brickskeller employs a particularly thoughtful approach to beer education. For individuals seeking religion in a bottle, the Brickskeller teamed up with the Smithsonian Institute to co-sponsor the "Philosophy on Tap" series. The series, which featured professors from nearby Catholic University, paired great thinkers with great beers. The "Socratic Virtue and the Platonic Good" session provided an examination of human virtue as naturally rooted in the care of the soul, sustained by ample servings of Bitburger Premium Pils, George Gale's HSB, and Rogue's Shakespeare Stout. If this subject seems a bit too heady, consumers could try a lighthearted discussion of Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil", accompanied by soul-warming servings of North Coast Rasputin Imperial Stout, Huyghe Delirium Tremens, and Warsteiner Pilsner.

While an active classroom environment works for some students of beer, others respond to passive and subtler methods of instruction. At the Map Room, owner Laura Blasingame encourages her servers to employ a relaxed approach to trading customers up to better beer. "Number one, we've become educated," she says. "We in turn educate - not in your face. If someone comes up and orders a Heineken, maybe we'll give them a taste of a better German lager on draft on the side of their Heineken."

Another simple, but often overlooked education effort seeks to answer a simple, but often repeated question in on-premise settings - "What do you have on tap or in bottles?" For querying consumers, a table talker in the form of a beer menu offers another opportunity to educate and up-sell. An effective and informative beer menu extends beyond a mere listing of available beers, though this is a good start. (It is remarkable to see how many on-premise locations fail to adequately publicize their offerings, leaving customers without easy selection assistance and the business with lost sales opportunities). The best beer guides typically include an updated list of available beers, a concise description of each beer or style, and a brief overview of the processes of brewing and tasting flavorful beers.

At Sheffield's in Chicago, the owners produce a notable beer guide as a reference customers can use in navigating the bar's selection of more than eighty beers. The guide is divided into ales and lagers, describes the brewing process, and provides a glossary of technical terms associated with brewing and the enjoyment of beer. The guide details each beer in a straightforward manner, providing descriptions of each beer along with relevant information about the corresponding style or brewery. To help defray publishing costs, Sheffield's includes ads for craft breweries in the handy guide, which is available on nearly every table in the bar.

At Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia, faded beer guides also assist customers in navigating the bar's vast craft and imported bottle selection. It begins with a proclamation of the owners' dedication to providing world-class beer, including many never before tasted in America. The guide continues with a description of the brewing process, ingredients such as hops and malt, and suggestions for the appreciation of beer. The guide shies away from descriptions of beers, excepting the occasional "wow" or "great" mark of approval. It instead opts to provide descriptions of the various styles into which the beers are placed, including obscure styles such as Flemish red ale and gueuze. The beer menu also presents a schedule of the bar's upcoming beer events.

Beyond traditional approaches to education, some enterprising breweries and on-premise businesses are tapping the potential of new mediums to educate consumers about beer. The web is a popular method for providing information to customers, ranging from routine operating information such as service hours and contact information, to tap beer lists to articles about beer and brewing. The Map Room's website (www.maproom.com) follows through on its theme by providing journal articles about travel. The website further highlights the bar's sizable tap and bottled beer selections, promotes its Beer School, and also includes a detailed section exploring beer styles and breweries.

Just north of San Diego, California, Greg Koch, owner of the Stone Brewing Company, strives not only to produce challenging products but also to take his message of flavorful beer to the masses. While some fight by land or sea, Koch fights on a third front - internet radio. Koch hosts a raucous web-based weekly radio show, complete with plenty of beer discussion with brewers and writers, not to mention some foul language directed mostly at the big breweries (they don't need no stinkin, FCC!) The show first hit the web in August 2001 after Koch appeared as a guest on another web radio program. One of the co-founders of the web radio network enjoyed his style and suggested a regular gig on beer. The show airs Wednesdays from 6 to 8pm, PST, or online archives at www.arrogantbastard.com/radioshow.

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Article appeared in the September 2002 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.