In case you’re not among the 23,405 people who stopped by my blog on September 22, you aren’t one of the visitors who are still finding Ben’s Beer Blog in numbers that put my former best traffic days to shame, or you haven’t stumbled onto one of the many outlets who picked up the story after I wrote about it, you should know that for lack of a better term, I basically exploded the internet last week with a story about Shock Top, a beer that is made by Labatt and one for which they were planning a less-than-honest advertising campaign.
Obviously the story received the level of attention that it did because most people feel upset about the news that a large brewery was attempting to pretend to be a small brewery in order to increase sales of one of their beers. Indeed, by and large, that has been virtually everyone’s reaction–with a small but notable exception: Among the comments for that post, in the responses on reddit forums, and via twitter, there has been a small but vocal minority whose response has essentially been, “Who cares?”
This minority, some of whom I’ve talked to directly and others who felt the need to comment anonymously, have made roughly the same argument with varying degrees of tact and merit and that argument is “If the beer tastes good, drink it.”
On the surface, that seems to be a pretty solid argument (disregarding, of course, the fact that Shock Top tastes like cardboard citrus pop). “Nothing else is relevant, so long as the liquid in the bottle, can, or keg tastes good.”
And sure, presumably, there are people with reasons to drink beer solely based on taste. Stephen Beaumont, for example, who is the co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and two editions of The Pocket Beer Guide and has been writing about beer for two decades, is often required to judge a beer solely on the merits of its taste.
“Where drinking purely for flavour is concerned,” he tells me via email, “the beer in the glass doesn’t speak to big brewery or small, artisanal producer or multinational machine, but only good or bad and the various shades of grey in between. All else is a question of ethical and philosophical choice. Does one tend to favour local over imported? Neighbour producer over faceless giant? Employer of thousands or employer of two or three? None of this has anything to do with taste, only personal world and market view.” And if you find yourself saying, “Amen, Stephen!” shut up for a second.
Beaumont also told me that the same doesn’t apply to the beer he drinks by choice. “When I’m reviewing a beer or a spirit, I don’t care where it comes from and rate everything on the same as-objective-as-possible scale” he says. “[But] when I’m choosing where to spend my dollar ‘votes’ as a consumer, I consider several other factors besides.”
In short, sometimes taste is all that matters to Stephen Beaumont, but you’re not Stephen Beaumont, so there’s more to consider (Unless of course you are Stephen Beaumont, in which case, hi Stephen! Thanks for the quote).
All the marketing in the world doesn’t matter if the beer doesn’t taste good, and I also agree that it doesn’t really matter if beer is made in small batches or large batches if the focus is on quality and the results are a delicious beer, but to say that “taste is the only thing that matters” is bullshit for a number of reasons.
First, it’s demonstrably not true. If taste were all that matters, presumably the beers that rank highest on sites like ratebeer (i.e. beers that have for all intents and purposes been agreed upon as the “best tasting”) would also be the beers that are the best selling. That’s not the case. By volume, the biggest selling beers in the world for 2013 were:
- Bud Light
- Coors Light
The “best” beers in the world as of this post, according to beeradvocate are:
- Heady Topper
- Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout by Goose Island Beer Co.
- Hunahpu’s Double Barrel-aged Imperial Stout from Cigar City Brewing
- Pliny The Younger from Russian River Brewing Company
- Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout from Goose Island Beer Co.
- Pliny The Elder
- Double Sunshine IPA by Lawson’s Finest Liquids
- Three Floyds Brewing Co’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Bean Dark Lord
- Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
- Zombie Dust by Three Floyds
You’ll notice there’s no overlap between the two lists (nor is there any with the ratebeer top ten). Indeed, I could probably extend both lists to the top 100 and we wouldn’t see any names repeated on both lists.
Because when it comes to sales, taste isn’t all that matters. In fact, taste hardly matters at all. The ten best-selling beers in the world are all variations on the same watery theme and presumably most consumers would be unable to tell them apart in a blind taste test. The best selling beer in the world, Snow, is a 3.9% light lager brewed with mild Saaz hops from the Czech Republic. Mmmm.
There are a million other factors that matter much more than taste when it comes to beer sales. Marketing, price, distribution, and even the fucking colour of the label have more of an effect on sales than the bloody taste. And sometimes, it’s just being in the right place at the right time. In China, where Snow is manufactured by China Resources Enterprise (a SABMiller partner) there is a huge demand for flavourless lagers and not many companies that can meet that massive demand. So China Resources Enterprises, which dedicates their resources and enterprises to 90 production breweries (90!) that produced 10.3 billion litres of Snow in 2013, has the distinction of being responsible for 5.3% of the world’s beer market, even though they only sell their product in one god damn country.
Secondly, the “taste is the only thing that matters” argument is bullshit because there are a plethora of reasons you should be supporting craft beer instead of corporately made beer.
Craft brewers give a shit about beer. It’s a bit of a generalization, sure, but the smaller companies that make beer are largely doing so because they are passionate about beer. Very few people start craft breweries because they want to make a lot of money–and if they do, they’re likely to get a rude awakening. What that means is that the product in your glass generally comes from a desire to make a tasty beer. Very often the result is just that, a tasty beer. Personally, if two companies are making an identical beer, and one of those companies created that beer from a desire to make good beer and the other company created their beer from a desire to “drive penetration with experience maximizers in the reward myself need state” I’ll take the first beer, thank you very fucking much.
Furthermore, while I know its an opinion not shared among all beer writers, I prefer to drink beer that is made locally and beer that is made by small companies. I like knowing that, when I buy a six pack, at least some of the money I spend is going toward a small business owner in Ontario. I love being able to buy beer directly from a brewery and if the opportunity arises to literally hand my money to the person who made the beer and talk to that person about said beer, I typically need to buy a growler to hide my super-happy-beer-boner. OK, I’m being a little bit hyperbolic here–but not much.
Seriously the “taste is all that mattes” argument is such bullshit if you dissect for two seconds whose companies you’re helping when you buy from a craft brewer versus buying from the big guys. So let’s do that.
In 2013, Anheuser-Busch InBev generated revenues of $43.2 billion US. They did so through the proliferation of about 17 brands including Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, Beck’s, Hoegaarden, and Leffe.
The current CEO of AB InBev is Carlos Brito. He’s a Brazilian who worked for Shell Oil and Daimler Benz. He’s the guy who orchestrated InBev’s takeover of Anheuser Busch (and subsequently made AB InBev’s stock rise more than 150% over the past four years) and a guy whom this Fortune profile noted “will abandon longtime suppliers for cheaper ones, raise prices, and brew foreign beers in the U.S. to save money.” As the article notes, “No one embodies the cutthroat spirit more than Brito.”
In 2012, Brito was among 40 AB InBev executives who were in line for for a windfall of more than 100 million euros (each) when the company issued $1.33 billion US in bonuses when the brewer cut its debt two years ahead of target
I don’t know Carlos Brito personally, but seriously fuck that fucking guy.
On the other end of that spectrum, here’s Mandie Murphy.
Mandie and her husband Mark are the owners of Left Field Brewery.
Mandie left her job with a wine brand manager to work full time on Left Field, a company started by Mark, an avid homebrewer who abandoned his job as a chartered accountant to go to the Niagara College Brewing program, and then did a stint working at Molson before starting Left Field. They currently brew their beer at Grand River Brewery in Cambridge and at Barley Days Brewery in Picton. While they have been brewing their beer in larger facilities, they have worked tirelessly to build their brand pouring their lineup of beers at festivals and events in and around Toronto.
Currently, Torontonians who live in the city’s east end can literally walk by the pair labouring at the future site of their very own brewery at Greenwood Avenue and Gerard Street, the building of which has been an inherently risky endeavour that is accounting for most of the couple’s time these days and surely most of their money (and an endeavour that likely accounts for Mandie’s face in this picture).
If AB InBev were to make a product that tastes exactly the same as a Left Field Brewery beer, which one would you rather buy?
Obviously, I’m being dramatic by juxtaposing the vaguely-sinister-looking-Brazilian-kajillionaire with an image of Mandie that looks like she might poop her pants, but seriously, this is largely the reality when you talk about supporting craft brewers vs. big breweries. It’s often the difference between supporting a company that is creating jobs in your own backyard versus throwing a little more money on the heaving pile of cash in the coffers of a company that, if it were a country, would rank roughly 90th in terms of GDP.
It’s the difference between drinking a beer that is made of all natural ingredients versus one that is full of adjuncts and additives. It’s often the difference between choosing a beer that has all its ingredients listed on the label versus one that doesn’t. It’s the difference between drinking a beer that is made by an independent brewery that focuses on the production of quality beer versus drinking beer made by a huge company that is simply pretending to be that in order to make even more fucking money.
So no, unless you’re you’re being woefully ignorant of where your dollars are going when you buy beer, or you’re simply content to be an asshole, taste isn’t the only thing matters when it comes to beer.
11 thoughts on “When it comes to beer, taste isn’t all that matters”
Before someone else points it out, the title of this post is meant to stand directly opposed to a post I wrote in 2013 called “When it comes to beer, all that really matters is taste.”
Just to clarify my inherently flip-floppy blog post titles here, that other post was really more about treating beer as overly-precious. In it, I was railing against craft beer evangelism that puts too great a value on “process” versus the final product and the problem when we start talking about beer as something that can only be enjoyed by people who “understand” beer.
Read the post! https://bensbeerblog.com/2013/06/24/when-it-comes-to-beer-all-that-really-matters-is-taste/ I’m not really a massive hypocrite, I just play one on TV.
I agree that buying locally makes sense; it’s good for our economy and the beer is always much fresher. My preference is usually for local beer and I don’t drink light lagers made by mega brewers (mostly because I just don’t like that style). I am however a huge fan of the craft scene in the U.S. Many of those beers aren’t local for us and in some cases may come from fairly huge operations. Stone Brewing or Sam Adams are great examples of this.
Don’t get me wrong I love Ontario beer and there are some amazing things being brewed right here in this city, but there is much to learn from our neighbours to the south. I think many of the best brewers in this city already know it’s important to taste a really great craft beer (regardless of who makes it), so they have some basis for comparison and can brew a better beer themselves. We beer drinkers also need to do the same thing so we can demand better beer from our own craft breweries and that sometimes means not buying it locally.
For the record, I’m not saying just buy local, but at least know who you’re supporting. I like a lot of American craft brewers too and I even like a beer from Stone or Sam Adams once in a while.
If a group of neo-Nazis made beer would it be judged on the taste?
Don’t think so.
The key part is that the business model of big or fake breweries force them to brew in a certain way in order to be in business, likewise smaller breweries in their way. Those differences should be reflected in the taste. There are of course good and bad beers made by both types of businesses, but to ignore where it comes from is as dumb as ignoring the colour and appearance (which beer judges sped lots of time on in addition to the ‘taste’).
Good read, Ben. Agree on all points. But please, PLEASE, no more mentions of your “beer boner.”
I think you nailed it for a lot of reasons, but the Lorax-blowing treehugger in me (to steal a quote from “Archer” which is probably reason enough ignore me) has a bit of an issue. I find that I tend to separate the corporation from the people working for it. Absolutely the huge brewing companies embody corporate shittiness, but they employ a lot of people who are probably a lot less shitty as individuals. And I realise that the employees aren’t the ones who are truly benefiting from the massive sales, but they are at least working. It’s the same deal with Walmart, McDonald’s, etc etc ad nauseam. The companies are easy to hate, but they constitute a huge employer both domestically and worldwide. It wouldn’t suck if they produced better products and, in many cases, treated their employees less like disposable cogs, but it doesn’t mean everything about them is despicable. I’m really not trying to say “Everybody buy Bud.” It’s more like “Buying Bud is not as bad as willingly giving a handy to a serial killer.” Or “I will continue to buy craft beer but I’m not bothered by the fact that my parents drink Blue.”
Another important reason to care about who’s brewing your beer is how the profits are going to be used. Even if someone like ABInBev were marketing an IPA that was indistinguishable from Magic Rock’s High Wire, I’d still be motivated to pay a bit extra for Magic Rock, because I suspect that a good wedge of the profit on that bottle will help keep the brewery afloat, or get ploughed back into expanding their production facilities, trying out new recipes, covering the risk of launching more experimental and less commercially reliable beers, expanding their distribution network, and generally increasing the chances of me having more access to better beer in the future. ABInBev are more likely to use the profit to pay their directors a bigger bonus, increase their shareholder dividends, and maybe help to fund a marketing campaign for a generic premium vodka that they’re launching on the South American market – in other words, to do stuff that will do absolutely nothing for my chances of having more acces to better beer in the future.
Big international consortia aren’t going to bother with all the weird and unpopular stuff that beer geeks love – faux craft is always going to be about the tried and tested, the easy drinking pale ales and witbiers “craft lagers”, not imperial stouts and ruby milds and flemish reds. If we only care about the taste of the beer in the bottle and how much it costs us and happily take the mass produced option every time, then before long we might not have many options left when we feel like something a bit different instead…
Oh, and to kind of echo what you just said, this doesn’t mean that I think you should never drink anything unless it comes from some local mom-and-pop microbrewery. Just that, even from the perspective of pure self-intererest, there are more factors to consider in deciding which beer to buy than what’s in the bottle and how much it costs.
Not sure why you bothered setting up the ratings-versus-volume strawman if you were going to dismantle it yourself. Don’t you think price (Utopias) and market scarcity (Heady Topper) are much better indicators that consumers believe the ratings?
Anyway, a couple more arguments, disguised as questions:
What about the the guy halfway between Carlos and Mandie, good old Jim Koch? You don’t think that the Boston Beer Company wrote an agency brief full of marketing jibber jabber that basically amounts to “we want consumers to think we’re smaller/cooler than we actually are” at one end of the process that resulted in your post today about their beer? Just because Jim is folksy and wears khakis doesn’t mean he’s not also a key-carrying member of the kajillionaire club.
Also, that volume argument at the beginning of your post reminded me of a critical question that makes me happy everyone in China drinks Snow instead of Stone (or a local equivalent). What about the environment? Macro beer is uninteresting and otherwise evil, but it’s clearly more efficient, especially on water use. It’s one thing if a few million Canadians shift their beer consumption to the option that uses 40% more freshwater, but entirely different if that happened in China.
The Sam Adams argument, which I suspected might get raised in light of my post today, is fair, but I do draw a distinction between the Boston Beer Company and AB InBev. Indeed, I think my line for what I would choose to spend my own money on can be drawn quite literally at Samuel Adams–much like the Brewers’ Association in the US continues to adapt its definition of “craft beer” so that it is consistent with Samuel Adams capacity: currently it’s a brewer with an “annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less” http://www.craftbeer.com/the-beverage/what-is-craft-beer
Right at the Boston Beer mark! What a coincidence.
And while it seems vaguely stupid to move the mark just to include Samuel Adams in the “craft category,” there is something to be said for the company’s craft credentials despite the fact that Jim Koch is literally now a billionaire. I mean, it’s still the same guy running the company, for one. He literally made the first Boston Lager in his bath tub (as the oft-repeated legend/marketing goes). And to me, importantly, the beer is still actually well made. Obviously, Sam Adams is heavily marketed, and generally speaking the bigger the company the less focus there tends to be on the beer, but if we start to shun craft brewers simply because they have become successful, we end up like that guy who likes bands until they sell out by signing with a label so that they can get paid to what they love.
You know? Where do we start to draw that line?
Everyone draws his line where he wants, but it seems exceedingly arbitrary to me. Boston Beer isn’t local, small-scale or creating any backyard jobs. Why move the line for where “the Dark Side” starts just because Koch is still involved. What happens when he retires? Mars is still family-owned, does that make it craft candy? Is Loblaws a craft grocery store?
When Left Field opens they’ll have something like 1 / 500 the brewing capacity of Boston Beer. As is obvious from BB’s history, marketing dollars come disproportionately from the higher part of a brewery’s capacity range. (I.e. revenue from bbl 1 – 3 mil pays for the ingredients, staff, and brewery, 3,000,001 – 4 mil for Koch’s khakis, and 4,000,001 – 6 mil for continent-wide marketing). Mandie and Mark will have to compete directly against that marketing behemoth — with a brewery that makes 0.02% the amount of product — or risk losing their investment.