Dear craft beer industry: There is a lot of talk these days, what with the explosion of new craft breweries everywhere, that something has to give. The math seems simple.
Either craft beer lovers have to drink lots more beer, or you guys are going to have to grow the business by getting others to drink at least some of your beer. Your product is usually really good. But your recruiting powers are somewhat passive and not so aggressive.
There are a couple of ways to do overcome this. You could get people to give up Budweiser and Coors Light, but that ain’t gonna happen in this lifetime. They have this thing called a “massive advertising budget,” and they’re not going to let go of a smidgen of their customer base without a fight.
I have a better idea. Let’s target wine lovers. No, we don’t want them to give up their wine. But maybe we could get those who drink only wine to open their minds and make room on their palates for something hoppy, malty or even sour. But how?
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I recently met a wine-only imbiber at a party. I remember the face she made when I asked her about beer, and it wasn’t a happy face. She also used the word “bloated,” as in, beer will make you kinda fat. She said this to yours truly, who went home and did sit-ups.
A couple of days later, while drinking a really good beer, I had this idea: What would it take to turn her on to beer?
So I invited Amelia McLear and her husband, Aaron McLear, to a tasting. Amelia, who works in corporate communications, loves wine and is not the least bit into beer. To her, beer has all kinds of baggage. It was frat parties. It was bitter. It was filling and fattening, “and that’s not attractive to me.” There was nothing beer could do that wine couldn’t do better. Beer on a hot day? Well, she’ll have a sauvignon blanc or Champagne.
Aaron, a political consultant, likes beer but feels he is on the outside looking in when it come to the new craft beer boom. The styles, the breweries, the labels. He hasn’t kept up, and it seems overwhelming.
I wanted to show them there was more to beer than mere lager, that beer was every bit as nuanced and sophisticated as wine, but without the ridiculously pretentious tasting notes you find in certain wine circles (though some beer people are doing their best to look ridiculously pretentious, too).
We sat on the patio at LowBrau during happy hour. I ordered all kinds of beer. We had our glasses and dump cups. My thinking: Amelia would either be impressed by something smooth, simple and clean, like a well-made pilsner, or she would be surprised, and possibly delighted, by something more complex, like a barrel-aged Belgian-y beer.
One thing about Amelia, you know where she stands. The first beer, a well-respected pilsner by Trumer (4.8 percent ABV), struck out with her. It was beer. Old-fashioned beer. Blech! I could add an au contraire right about now – that’s a darn good pilsner – but this is her show. We moved on.
OK, how about something completely different, like a Deshutes Obsidian Stout (6.4 percent ABV)? Interesting. But good? Wish I could describe the look on Amelia’s face. Not good.
How about a lambic that’s dry, crisp and fruity? A Six Rivers Framboise. It has a Champagne-y vibe meets raspberry. I loved it, but Team McLear went the other way on me. I was losing them.
At this point, I asked Amelia what kind of wine she likes. Big fruit-bomb zins? No way. She likes nuanced, well-rounded red blends, and French.
I poured a style called Flemish red ale, the Duchesse de Bourgogne (6 percent ABV) and, oh boy, it’s a pretty beer. It’s listed as a sour, but it’s more nuanced and refined on the palate and not so easy to pin down. It’s aged in oak barrels. There’s a yeasty note to the nose. Amelia took a whiff. Then a sip. Then ... a smile. Jackpot!
The Duchesse had a complexity that reminded her of wine. It was a beer, but it was different, thought-provoking, comforting. Here was a beer she liked and would be willing to revisit. Aaron liked it, too.
Craft beer, you’re good, but you have work ahead of you. You have 6 percent of the beer market. If you’re going to expand, you’re going to have to do it without a massive advertising budget. You have to explain your product and tell your story. There are folks like Amelia and Aaron who will be open to it, but you’ve still got some convincing to do.