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Oakes Weekly - March 27, 2003

Spring is here, and love is all around...
Oakes Weekly March 27, 2003      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

Last week may have seen mile-deep snow drifts in the Mile High City, but here in Toronto it was the Big Melt. Though spring is usually marked by a series of false starts, this year it came like the flick of a light switch. For this, I am happy, and not just because I've already broken out the sandals. Spring is one of my favourite drinking seasons. The others are autumn, summer and winter (insert rim shot).

<P>What I love about spring beer drinking is the versatility. What annoys me is how reluctant the "innovative" North American microbrewers are to take advantage of this glorious drinking opportunity - more on that later. The versatility is astounding (at least for us northerners). In early spring you have sometimes quite chilly days, frigid nights and last gasp snowstorms. This affords us the opportunity to savour the leftover supplies of barley wine and imperial stout. Later in spring you have spectacular summery days of sunshine, blooming flowers and lush foliage on the trees - perfect time to break out the north German pilsners, IPAs and wheat beers of all types. But a large portion of spring sits somewhere in between, with cool but pleasant temperatures, clouds and rain. This is perfect pub weather - ideal for bitter, porter, stout, brown ale - finishing up with a schwarzbier or dubbel perhaps. Though all this, of course, are hockey playoffs, but that is another matter altogether. (No offense to basketball fans, but basketball playoffs are not an established beer-drinking event).

<P>One thing I don’t understand is why North American micros don’t put a bigger push on spring seasonals. In England, seasonals are a year-round event, each month an excuse to release a few casks of a brand new beer. You have Easter beers in many parts, especially Scandinavia, and the Germans have maibocks. Over here, you don’t see Easter beers. Many brewers
do of course produce spring seasonals, but these don’t get the kind of push that is associated with the big winter and Christmas brews, or the light summery ones. Are the brewers baffled by all the stylistic flexibility the season affords?

<P>One theory is that spring isn’t a big drinking season (Canadian breweries know better - I told you about the hockey playoffs), relative to the summer and holiday seasons. Maybe for macro drinkers that is true. But I know of no time during the year that beer geeks slow down. We here at Ratebeer don’t “take it easy” just because it’s spring. But let’s not forget that the
spring beers of Europe are as likely mainstream brews as craft ones - so maybe our guys need to manufacture a spring drinking season by creating a buzz around brave new brews, much like they do during winter. Whether or not the macros follow suit I really couldn't care.

<P>Speakings of macros, I read an interesting piece on Sleeman in Tuesday’s Financial Post. The article went on about the company’s lousy stock performance and the difficulties they are facing now that this self-proclaimed “craft brewer” is competing
directly with Molson and Labatt’s (especially now that those two are learning the signature Sleeman trick of getting people to pay premium prices for everyday beer - see Keith’s, Rickard’s). As much fun as it is to read about Sleeman having difficulties (it would do nothing for me if they just admitted that they are a mainstream brewer), I was deeply alarmed by something that was stated rather innocuously at the end of the article (a la 'no
alcohol for 17 days!').

<P>It was stated that one of the problems Sleeman faces is lack of capacity, notably in Quebec. When they launched their expansion by purchase strategy in the 90’s, Quebec’s Seigneuriale was easily their smallest acquisition. They do have plenty of capacity in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, but due to Quebec
’s restrictive distribution regulations, they really do need a facility in-province.

<P>Thus, it is speculated that despite their high debt load, they may be in the market for another Quebec micro to purchase. McAuslan is off the table, already being in bed with Moosehead (no change in the character of the Oatmeal Stout as of yet, thankfully). The one mentioned in the article was
the next logical choice - Unibroue. They have the capacity, the
distribution network, and the sales force (though the reps might
discombobulate when attempting to describe Sleeman’s beers using the same flowery adjectives they typically use for Unibroue’s products). Like anyone else who knows Sleeman, I cringe at the though of this macrobrewer taking control of Canada’s best-loved microbrewer. Sure, you’d still be able to buy
Maudite, but if past performance is any indication, the growth of Unibroue’s brands would languish as funds and attention are diverted to Sleeman brands, specialties would be culled and then of course would come the cans - like Upper Canada, Shaftebury and Okanagan Spring before it. OK, the bit about the cans might be a little over the top (although it likely ranks as the least over-the-top doomsday proclamation by any CAMRA member in history), but that last thing I want to see is Unibroue as anything other than a strong, vibrant, growing, independent regional. I just hope their ownership sees things they same way.

<P>I was recently ruminating on the subject of different types of beer drinking. It seems to me that, back in the day, there were two types of beer drinking. There was professional beer drinking - used by the industry for things like quality control and industry competitions. This involves a lot of focus on brewing flaws - diacetyl, cleanness, stylistic adherence, batch-to-batch consistency and the like. Consumers then drank the beer, and evaluated it on any number of criteria (price, flavour, image, etc), but never evaluated it in any matter even approaching the scientific.

<P>Today a third style has emerged, one which continues (to my utter amazement) to meet resistance by a fair number of industry members and casual drinkers alike. You probably have encountered the troglodytes who wonder why you're writing notes on beer - "it's just beer, so why don't you just drink the stuff?" They're harmless, of course, though occasionally annoying. The other types - the industry folk - can be downright malicious if they don't approve of amateur beer tasters. If you've yet to meet any of these, consider yourself lucky, because I've ran into a few. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think any of these clowns have the balls to run their mouth to my face, but on the Internet everyone's a tough guy, so you might get this from time to time. (Funny, too, that these chumbalongs are invariably involved with lousy micros or brewpubs, churning out consistently mediocre beer. And then they sit on their high horse as though making their living off of soporific beer means that they're actually making a contribution to the business).

<P>So for the benefit of those who don't get it yet, I will explain this "new style" of beer rating. Educated consumers were led by the early beer writers - Jackson, Protz, Crombecq, etc. They were members of CAMRA, PINT, or OBP in Europe, or just homebrewers who'd learn about taking beer notes through their participation in the competition circuit. These were people who may or may not have had any formal training, but they knew about things like ingredients, styles and techniques. They also took on, to varying degrees, a different focus from the industry style of tasting. They were more bottom-up than top-down. In other words, the beer was graded on what it had to offer, and not on what flaws it had to detract from perfection. So no longer could a beer like Budweiser be considered a "well-made" beer by virtue of an absence of off-flavours (though I've argued for years that it lacks balance due to excess accent on the water). Instead, Budweiser was lousy beer based on its lack of redeeming qualities. This doesn't mean that off-flavours are ignored - in fact they are still the reason for many lambastings here on Ratebeer - but there is a built-in assumption that a professional beer shouldn't have flaws anyway, so the focus of the taster should be on the positive qualities and the beer graded on how many of these a given beer brings to the table.

<P>Ten years ago, professional beer writers made up the bulk of "amateur" tasting notes available to the public. With the Internet, though, came people who were writing about beer but not making their living at it - a handful of pioneers whose ranks include Bov, Per Samuelsson and myself. With Ratebeer of course the doors were flung wide open and this brings both the good and the bad. The bad of course are the raters who don't take any care with what they write - they don't know what they are talking about, are not equipped with anything resembling a vocabulary, or who rate while hammered or from memory (or both). Thankfully, many of us humans are equipped with brains and it is not terribly difficult for the vast majority of us to tell by reading a rating whether or not the writer has three clues about that which they are talking. (This doesn't stop critics from holding up the worst examples of online beer rating in a feeble attempt to trash the whole idea).

<P>The good, of course, is that some of the lousy raters - and most everybody stinks when they first try it - have a very steep learning curve as they absorb the vast body of knowledge possessed by the more experience beer tasters with whom they interact daily on sites like this. I've seen a lot of people come to Ratebeer knowing next to nothing and a few months later they're writing like pros. Also, the more ratings we compile, the more significant the aggregate becomes. Though an individual rating may not have much bearing on its own, two hundred ratings gives you a pretty clear example of how a beer stacks up in the minds of educated raters.

<P> Does it exemplify the public as a whole? For some beers, we're the target market, for others we're not. I'll use a recent example from Bartowel.com, where Mill Street Organic Lager was slammed pretty hard. Not hard to see why, Bartowellers are beer geeks, and this beer is not aimed at beer geeks. So what beer geeks say about it doesn't really tell much of a story. However, Sgt. Major's IPA from Scotch Irish Brewing, a Bartowel favourite, is aimed at beer geeks. So for that beer, how well it stacks up on Bartowel or Ratebeer is a pretty good indicator of how well it will be received by the larger beer geek community. The Winking Judge in Hamilton may have few online beer geeks as regulars (four, to be precise) but whether a beer geek likes hanging out on the web or not doesn't make a lick of difference in terms of what he wants in a beer - Sgt. Major's is a big hit at the Judge because the four online people who drink there have the same taste's as the couple hundred offline people who drink there.

<P>There are other things, too. First, we drink beer in real beer drinking situations. Lab settings are perfect for analysis, and the industry should conduct its tastings in that type of setting. But, and apparently this is a surprise to some people, most beer is not consumed in a lab. Nor is it generally consumed at the brewery (brewpubs excepted, naturally). Numbers assigned to beers based on one tasting in one setting probably don't mean a whole lot, but the aggregate affect of dozens of ratings shows how a beer performs in (beer geek) public in general. Sometimes it is past its prime, sometimes it is consumed in a smoky bar, sometimes with food, etc. A beer that excels in all situations will rise to the top and a beer whose application is more limited may languish a bit. A snapshot is just a snapshot, but a series of snapshots strung together is a movie. Of course, it's still garbage in garbage out, but only laziness prevents one from getting to know the calibre of those whose input is included and making up their own mind.

<P>I personally love what I see here. I should think people in the business would, too. Look at the brewers who are friends with Ratebeer - Stone, Flossmoor Station, Three Floyds, Michael Hancock ex of Denison's, Casta, and all the brewers who've done interviews with us. These are people who make quality beer that people respond well to. They also understand that in each of our own little circles, we are the "beer experts" to whom our friends turn when they need advice. They love our enthusiasm for the product. Anyone in the industry who doesn't like people as passionate about beer as we are probably should find themselves a new line of work, because they obviously don't have the same passion (and like I said, they invariably make half-assed beers, another product of lack of passion). Debate is cool. Mean-spirited mouth-running is something we could all do without.



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