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.