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Oakes Weekly - June 3, 2007

What’s Next for Craft Beer, part 3
Oakes Weekly June 3, 2007      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

Yes, folks, May was a busy month. So I didn’t get the chance to sit down and continue the What’s Next for Craft Beer series. Well, here it is: #3.

Some of the things I did in May have helped shape this piece. The first weekend of the month I headed into the interior…to that strange place on the other side of the mountains where they don’t have giant trees and constant rain. They actually have a very dry climate conducive to growing grapes. My first two stops, of course, were brewpubs. Cause that’s me. The first was Freddy’s in Kelowna, which is twinned with a bowling alley. Now that’s a hell of a combination. The kitchen was just closing when we arrived. Friday at Freddy’s means curry night, and for the second time I’d arrived at Freddy’s on a Friday and not been able to partake. Anyway, the chef there has apparently spent some time studying Indian cuisine and his curries are quite famous. The next day we headed north to Salmon Arm to visit a new brewpub there. Salmon Arm is a working class small town on the Transcanada Highway that’s experiencing a minor boom. The new brewpub is probably the best restaurant in town. Two weeks later I went through Washington State where small town brewpubs like Flyers and Silver City are also the best restaurants in town.

Being a good restaurant gets people through the doors who aren’t beer geeks. It establishes and reinforces the connection between great food and great beer. There’s always room for a ‘knock em back’ sort of brewpub if it’s done right, but to me there’s no excuse for having a shit kitchen if you’re a brewpub. You’re not doing yourself any favours and you’re not doing the industry any either. I know one brewpub in Washington that serves microwaved hot dogs with little plastic condiment packets. That’s a joke. Good luck convincing anyone in that town that craft beer is worthwhile.

Aside from purely gastronomical considerations, the food-beer connection is a matter of presentation. And in presentation beer still has a long way to go. Other events of the past month reinforced that quite clearly.

After my beering experiences in the interior I attended a wine and food show. It wasn’t terribly cheap but the food was slick and the entire event well-presented. The wine association has a refurbished warehouse that they used to house this event. A small jazz ensemble played. At beer festivals you always seem to get a really crappy rock band or some dirty hippy jam band and that’s just not civilized. It’s better than, say, Fergie, but it simply doesn’t project anything other than amateurism. These jazz guys might have been rank amateurs, too, but jazz guys can fake it. Maybe it’s the volume, but bad rock stands out like a sore thumb. Even bad jazz isn’t too obtrusive or annoying. (And I’m pretty far from being a jazz fan, so it’s not a question of taste).

The food presented was sophisticated fare. Some of it too much so (putting nuts in sausages, thus buggering up the texture without adding to the taste) but compare with beer’s ubiquitous burgers and pizza and you see what I mean. It’s presentation.

The local liquor monopoly’s big store near me has wine tastings every Saturday. For the recent one with Argentinian wines they brought in a chef to do some steak and chimichurra, they had the tango playing, they’d set out six really good cheeses and people were loving it. Only one of the wines was any good but nobody cared. Compare with the fat, smelly guy hawking some generic Eastern European pilsner over in the corner. I’m not making that up. No food, no music, and the guy didn’t even bother to shower. No wine rep would even attempt that.

At the Eat Vancouver show the booze section had everybody mixed up together. On the surface the booths all looked more or less the same. The experiences I had talking to the various reps was eye-opening though. The rum, tequila and sake folks were all sort of nervous about seeing someone actually sniff and take notes. But at least they knew better than to patronize me. The wine folks didn’t either…they were selling fun as much as they were selling wine. All those flowery descriptions we beer geeks use and that some folks mock wine drinkers for were quickly dispensed with for the majority of customers who came by.

The beer people…they seriously needed to get their shit together. Many of them had kids hawking the products. The brewers seriously couldn’t be bothered to show up. Thus, you couldn’t speak to them intelligently about the product. Whenever I wanted to do so with any other beverage it was easy. Even the lady selling the bizarre Chinese liquors quickly stopped using western comparatives (“it’s like whiskey”) once she realized I was an experienced drinker. But the beer guys couldn’t do it. One rep repeatedly insulted my intelligence when I was trying to talk about his products.

So this article might be more ranty and less focused than the previous two but the point I want to get across is that presentation is crucial. You could have kids-for-hire hawking your product or you could have adults who know the product. Adults who have enough marketing experience to switch between selling lifestyle and talking in depth about the product...how few breweries actually do this.

You could present your products with stylish food, music and setting or you could be the smelly guy with the lager, the festival with the crappy local cover band, or the brewpub with nothing but “pub food” on the menu.

The wine industry has succeeded in changing the image of their product. It didn’t happen overnight – it took a full generation. And it didn’t happen by accident either. The craft beer industry doesn’t seem to have such a plan. It should. The good news is that it doesn’t have to take a full generation…we’re halfway there already and since many of the lessons have been learned by other industries already we don’t have to have so many failures along the way.

But it’s going to take some introspection. The days of everybody being happy with everybody else are long gone…craft beer kicks ass and deserves to be the dominant beer segment out there. As I’ve written in the previous articles in this series, it can be. It should be. But there’s still too much amateurish marketing going on. Unprofessional presentation is a major cause for concern. That needs to change.



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start quote Being a good restaurant gets people through the doors who aren’t beer geeks. It establishes and reinforces the connection between great food and great beer. end quote