Friday, June 20, 2008

The Purpose of Reviewing Beer

Along with the growing popularity of craft beer comes the rising number of fan-based websites and personal blogs. These websites range from online diaries to sophisticated collective ratings systems, from very private first-person accounts to semi-professional and certified beer judges to encyclopedic communities of beer reviewers.

If you have spent any time at all looking up the details of your favorite craft beer, then you are probably familiar if not already a member of many of these websites. Two of the most prominent are Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, both of which have complex scoring scales and product rankings. Others include the Oxford Bottled Beer Database, BeerPal and dozens of other home-spun efforts to emulate the largest of these. With the low threshold of scripting and database tools available on the cheap, new beer-rating websites are developed all the time.

To the interactive websites, we can add the personal beer blogs. These run the full gamut of quality and experience, from the novice just discovering craft beer and stringing together dangling participles with blurry digital photos to the seasoned craft beer consumers, homebrewers and judges to the professional columnists and writers for whom their blog is just another media outlet for their work. But what is the purpose behind all this online beer rating, ranking, wrangling and reviewing?

Some of these websites, especially the larger ones, have developed into both online and actual public communities of like-minded craft beer hobbyists. A few have even gone so far as to develop rivalries and conflicting factions, with their published “best of” lists being picked up by the general media investigating this craft beer phenomenon — which are all topics for another time. However, our focus here is on the purpose of actually writing a personal review of a single craft beer.

First, more writing is always a good thing. In our digital age of e-communication and a thousand channels of pap on the television, it is good to focus on our language skills again. Writing (about any topic, not just beer) is an exercise for the brain. One should work out their mental muscles no less than their physical muscles, and a goal of a sharp mind should be just as important as the definition of your abs.

Along that same argument, writing a review of a craft beer forces you to really think about that beer. Instead of gulping down a beverage, or even slowly sipping one of your faves, you are required to pay close attention to the sensations coming from your palate and translate these signals into understandable prose. You will have to analyze aromas, flavors, textures and even colors that are ordinarily amalgamated parts of the complete craft beer product.

With the analysis, you must also bring your personal beer experience. You attempt to isolate tastes and aromatics and connect each of them with brewing ingredients, other beers, even foods and chemicals. You make links with events, places and memories, both associated with the beer or with unrelated yet similar sensations. Some craft beer reviews can be turn out to be surprisingly personal.

In short, reviewing craft beer makes you think about what you are consuming, which in essence is the entire motivation behind the craft beer movement. Bland products are fit only for a quick, cursory consumption, and are so by willful product design. But if you are spending your money and adding those calories, there should be more to it than just a forgettable experience. Make sure to leave a record of that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Purpose of Limited Editions

One of the fastest growing trends in the craft beer industry is the offering of limited edition products. A limited edition beer is a beer that is brewed only once by a brewer, often in a single small batch. Limited edition beers are different from seasonal beers, which are sometimes brewed in the same manner but are on an annual production schedule. Limited editions appear one time only.

Most limited edition beers are styles that are either high gravity or out of the ordinary. Favorite selections for limited editions may be alcohol-soaring barleywines, imperial stouts, old ales, Scotch ales or Belgian-inspired beers. Other choices can be based on specialty hop varietals, fruit or nut infusions, artesian beers or even historical or extinct styles. But why do brewers choose to produce limited editions at all?

Contrary to the true nature of beer festivals, this time the cynical view is correct: money. Limited edition beers are highly profitable ventures for most craft brewers. Even in cases where the specialty ingredients are not cost-effective, and even when normal production schedules are reorganized around a special batch, the brewer still benefits financially if only through the marketing value surrounding their new product.

First and foremost, limited edition beers get noticed. They are talking points in brewery newsletters, subjects of advertising and marketing campaigns, and fuel for the fire of craft beer consumer zeal. Saint Arnold’s Divine Reserve series consistently sells out in less than a day statewide, even with reservation lists and limits on purchase quantities. Stone Brewing has dominated the limited edition world with their Vertical Epic series, building toward an eleven-year series conclusion in 2012. Carlsberg brewed their Jacobsen Vintage No. 1, which retails for $400 a bottle, a price artificially inflated by that brewing giant specifically for press appeal.

The attraction for craft beer consumers is a sight and taste of something different and unique, often never to be seen again. It is the same allure that drives concert and sports ticket sales, the desire for the individual to be “witness to history” and build up a cache of stories with which to impress their friends. It is the draw to maintain a complete sample set from a brewer, leaving no product untasted, and brewers are happy to oblige.

For the craft brewer themselves, it is a chance to flex their skill and creativity. Unhampered by the necessity of providing a business-dependent product, consistently and perpetually, brewers are able to design beers based on their personal tastes or ennui to experiment. They are able to construct their own badges of honor within the brewing industry, gilded even more so at craft beer competitions.

More significantly and more practically, limited edition beers allow an ideal test market for the craft brewer. Risk is contained as new products can be produced on a narrower scale and with restricted commitment. Those beers that do not sell well can easily be forgotten; those beers that surpass all expectations may become the next seasonal or permanent edition to the brewer’s portfolio.

To the individual craft beer company as an entity, limited editions can be a chest-thumping roar to other craft breweries. It is a method to announce their presence, no matter their scale or lackluster public opinion of their more mainstream products. A limited edition beer is a calling card of aptitude and expertise from a brewery that forces others to take them seriously by demonstrating their own irrefutable dexterity in the market.

The point behind limited edition beers may be patently financial but they do provide an all-around win for both brewers and consumers. Craft brewers benefit from additional revenue and industry clout, and craft beer consumers benefit from an increased and perennial variety. With the imaginations of brewers nourished by the pocketbooks of consumers, the limited edition trend is not likely to slow down.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Purpose of Beer Festivals

As long as the American craft beer movement has been around, there have been beer festivals. Some are organized by individual breweries, some by consumer advocate groups, most by third-parties to the brewing world such as distributors, retailers or other organizations. Festivals are generally planned for the good weather months of summer but may be found at any time. They can be of any size or held at any setting, some with a specialty focus, and in almost any state across the country.

But what is the purpose of these festivals? What can the organizers hope to accomplish by putting beers and beer drinkers together in the hot sun or the occasional summer shower? The immediate and cynical answer would be to earn a little cash but there are many easier routes to that end. The legal liabilities and licensing alone quash most proposed festivals at the concept stage.

What do the brewers and brewery representatives get out of the experience? For them, the festival provides a showcase for their beers, a means to get samples into the hands of a potential consumer base. Yet the fans of craft beers are already loyal followers of many of these same breweries, and exposure to these consumers is either a foregone conclusion or future certainty. Craft beer regulars tend to seek out the beers and brewers that interest them, so using festivals as an advertising medium is a wash.

Likewise, what does the public gain from beer festivals? Although a festival can draw the uninformed beer-curious, the primary attendees at festivals are already craft beer consumers. They may encounter beers they have not seen or tried previously but these customers are already the target market. They are the most likely candidates to make a purchase from a retailer and need no further convincing to make the sale.

Are beer festivals about educating the public? Possibly, although the primary draw and audience for beer festivals is already the craft beer fan. Macro beer drinkers tend to tire of craft beer quickly, and easily revert to their favorite mass-produced products. The craft market demographic is usually already well educated about craft beer styles and flavors, so the festival as a venue for public education is not a substantial argument.

The real purpose behind beer festivals is community. The average craft beer consumer rarely, if ever, encounters a professional brewer or brewery employee face to face. They know their products, they follow their business and history online and through other publications, but personal interaction is rare. Breweries are industrial workplaces and although most welcome the public with regular tours, the restrictions are many — primary among them being time and location.

The point of the beer festival is to put the brewer at the tap handing a sample glass to one of their patrons. This personal arrangement allows the brewer to feel rewarded about their hard work and vision and receive direct feedback from the consumer. It also allows the public to meet the tireless employees behind the label and brand, demystifying the industry for the customer living outside the system.

Beer festivals bring people together from all aspects of the craft beer industry, from brewers to distributors to retailers to shoppers. They provide a basis for relationships and communications in an industry that can be professionally isolated but also uniquely personal. No matter the organization behind them, festivals are collectively the craft beer village that everyone gets to visit for a short while every year.