You can learn a lot about what’s important in craft beer by looking at big beer, aka macro beer.
Take Budweiser, which is now calling its beer America. It’s right there on the can, for a limited time, they tell us, as if we’re supposed to be excited. I can picture these cans making an appearance on an episode of “American Picker” in about 40 years.
For decades, much of big beer’s advertising has been about feelings over facts, with commercials that have been funny or sexy or charming. Sometimes they tug at your heartstrings with puppies and Clydesdales or, in this case, actual lyrics from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
Just one problem: the American part. Belgium’s InBev bought Anheuser-Busch for $50 billion in 2008.
But really, the best of American beer these days is way better than this ho-hum and ubiquitous lager, which esteemed UC Davis brewing professor Charles Bamforth calls a “gently flavored product.” As my blind taste tests revealed last summer, Budweiser is a well-made product – the flavors are clean (and, yes, painfully gentle), the drinking experience crisp and simple and unoffensive. But aren’t we glad that craft beer has set the bar far higher than inoffensive?
You name it
While we can argue about naming a beer after an entire country, let’s agree that naming is a challenge, whether it’s puppies, kids, beer or breweries. Personally, I’m a fan of hair salons that use really bad hair puns.
Sometimes names just don’t work out. New Glory was going to be Old Glory and Claimstake was first called Argonaut. Then those darn lawyers started sending those pesky cease-and-desist letters.
Now comes the short, awkward and unpleasant chapter called Special Ed’s Brewery in Galt. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The stories went viral, and the onslaught was immense over the brewery’s perceived mocking of the developmentally disabled. Ed “Special Ed” Mason had a few sleepless nights. There were death threats. Someone hurled a rock through the front window of the business. To his credit, Mason met with his critics, including the mother of a grown daughter with autism, and soon changed the name to River Rock Brewery.
Speaking of brewery names, when I was perusing the list of winners in the recent California State Fair Commercial Craft Beer Competition, I was looking for how our local breweries did (very well, it turns out), but I couldn’t help but notice a brewery that kept popping up – Belching Beaver out of San Diego. Now there’s a name that might give you pause. But it’s catchy and, more important, doesn’t offend anyone but uncouth rodents. Plus, the beer is really good.
Now comes word that Track 7 is making an exciting collaboration beer with the folks at Belching Beaver, a Mexican-style lager brewed with corn, and infused with Kaffir lime leaves and lime juice. The beer will be packaged in 16-ounce cans on July 21 and available for sale a day later.
I asked Track 7’s Ryan Graham how the beers are named. Turns out, it’s much more involved – and expensive – than you might imagine. After coming up with ideas, the names are vetted and whittled down to a handful. The finalists are sent to the brewery’s trademark and patent attorneys, who make sure no one gets sued. With legal fees, query costs and filing fees, each beer name winds up costing Track 7 $1,500 to $1,700, according to Graham.
Wonkiness on tap
If you get a chance to chat with New Helvetia’s Dave Gull, you’ll soon realize he cares about community, is an advocate for moving the city forward, and is dialed in on local issues. He also is a fan of real dialogue, not the petulant exchanges we see so often online.
That’s why “Wonk Wednesday” at New Helvetia seems like such a good fit. The Broadway brewery and tasting room has been hosting discussions about once a month for the past two years. The most high-profile events have featured mayoral candidates Angelique Ashby and Darrell Steinberg on separate occasions. Other Wednesdays have dealt with the new arena and “the eternal pending revamp of Broadway.” On Wednesday, the topic was the homeless.
While it’s good for the community, Wonk Wednesday is not exactly bringing together beer lovers. Gull concedes that wonks and beer geeks are not necessarily the same species.
Asked about the kind of vitriol we see online, Gull said, “It doesn’t happen (with Wonk Wednesday). That’s because human behavior face to face is always going to be different than protected behavior behind a computer screen.”