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The Geek at the End of the Bar Vol 1.2

A rambling set of observations
Oakes Weekly September 14, 2006      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

The other night I made it out for cask night at a local brewpub. I had the afternoon off, so I was down there good and early, too. Usually, the IPA is what’s on cask. After all, the event mainly attracts brewers and beer geeks. The IPA has been a work in progress for quite a while and this particular version was really on top form. The fresh mandarin aroma of Simcoe’s burst from the glass. The malts were typical PNW style – minimal and pale. The beer was bitter and totally focused on delivering hop character. In short, a delicious, refreshing Simcoe bomb.

As I’ve watched this IPA progress from batch to batch, I’ve seen it get hoppier each time out. This particular beer seems to have developed an audience, and the brewer seems intent on giving that audience what it wants. This is how niche products develop and maintain their purpose.

It’s exactly what small brewers should be doing.

Unless, of course, they’re making lots of money. Some places, especially brewpubs, seem to do just fine with mediocre beers. Not to say that a profitable, crowded brewpub should ignore quality – it’s perfectly reasonable to make both money and great beer. But it is to say that if a brewery is not making the sort of money they would like to be making, that is a symptom that they have room for improvement.

Ultimately, this is a decision small brewers must face. Do you serve a niche market or do you set your sights on the mass market? You can exist for a while in between the two, but history has shown that operating between the two is not sustainable over the long run. Just look at the continuing demise of regional macrobrewers. In the beer game, you can do well as a microbrewery making characterful beers, or as a macrobrewery making a living from volume.

In Canada, we have government-run stores in most provinces that provide relatively easy market access to in-province brewers. This props up brewers who otherwise wouldn’t make it. Sometimes the issue is QC…there are a few BC brewers whose products I refuse to buy because they can’t get their shit together on the QC side of things. Sometimes it’s just boring beer that has no particular appeal to anybody. Or beer that is just like tens of other products on the shelves. Or it’s just not very good at what it’s trying to do.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with brewing for a broad market. I don’t necessarily mean the mass market, either. There is clearly a market in Canada, for example, for bland amber ales and nondescript premium lagers. There’s no shortage of products to fill that need. Success there has little to do with what beer geeks think. A brewer will generally have a hard time pleasing everyone.

Now that brings me to the point about those generic blonde ales and lagers you see in brewpubs. Why? To appeal to the Coors Light crowd? You know, Coors Light taps are easy to acquire and they also appeal to the Coors Light crowd. Why waste valuable brewing time giving someone a half-assed version of what they really want, and forcing the brewer to make a half-assed version of what he/she really wants to make.

I’ve also had the opportunity to consider “radical brews”. One of the ones I thought about was Crannóg’s Old Mill Flax Ale. They are a farm-brewery, and grow some flax, and use it in a beer. They do this with potatoes, cherries, hops and other things they grow on the farm, too. But do the Ratebeer search for “flax”. There’s only one. That’s pretty radical. Neat brew, too. Like with their potato beer, it demonstrates something I’d like small brewers to think about.

Lots of brewers have those beers, call them “transitional” or whatever you want. Those premium lagers, amber ales…the ones with low hop rates and uncomplex flavour profiles to appeal to a crowd somewhere in between swillers and beer geeks. I’ve had hundreds if not thousands of those types of beers and they almost always bore the bejeezus out of me. My ratings end up being about 1 ½ lines long because there’s nothing really to say about a beer that offers nothing you can’t find in 100 other beers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing shocking, bold or brave about Old Mill Flax Ale. But it’s really tasty and distinctive. Those lighter, transitional beers don’t have to suck! Brewers grumble under their breath when the come onto Ratebeer and see low ratings for their brands…but the quality of the beer reflects the effort put into it. So many brews are either cookie-cutter recipes or are mediocre examples of styles that are actually tough to nail.

Lager brewers lament that beer geeks don’t like lagers. Not necessarily so. But lagers are really difficult to make well. And beer geeks have probably found some relatively obscure Bavarian or Czech examples that blow the local lagers out of the water. When you’ve had the best, you don’t like the rest. Lagers require a brewer who is a total perfectionist and has taken the time to understand the process of making great, not good but great, lager inside and out. That’s a lot more rare than is widely believed.

The whole question of low-rated pilsners was on the forums this past week. There is evidence of bias amongst raters who do not have the experience level to appreciate anything other than BIG but for the most part, beer geeks love a great lager. And understand how rare a find a truly great lager is. Great ales aren’t that hard to make. It takes the right recipe and some technical skill, but a fairly average brewer can still make a highly-regarded ale. An average brewer cannot make a highly-regarded lager. Or hefeweizen, for that matter. German styles are the hardest to brew by far, if you want to go beyond “decent”. Lots of brewers will never be good enough to do these styles justice. I sure as hell can’t.

This brings me back to the original point about that IPA. It has hit its recent highs specifically because the brewer has worked continuously to make it great. It’s become a pet project, a baby. The feedback is out there and is listened to. So many brewers just don’t do this. They get a recipe and then leave it alone. They don’t work to improve it. They don’t ask, could this beer be better? If it’s the sort of beer you have to love beer to appreciate, would it sell better if improvements were made? Perfection is almost impossible to hit. I can sort of understand why people stop short of it. If a beer is flying off the shelves, there may not be a need to make changes. That’s fair enough. But if the beer isn’t flying off the shelves, why stop? Figure out what the best market for the beer is, and then keep tweaking it until it is at the point where that market can’t resist it. Nobody said it would be easy, but those brewers who are nice and comfortable have already done it.



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start quote This particular beer seems to have developed an audience, and the brewer seems intent on giving that audience what it wants. This is how niche products develop and maintain their purpose. end quote