Saturday, May 2, 2009

Beeronomics: Mass or Niche Markets and Incentives

[Note: Stan Hieronymus had to set me straight - aroma and bitterness are as much or more about how you use hops as the hops themselves.  Add them later in the boil and you get more aroma and less bitterness.  All this re-education is making me want to brew again.  Perhaps with Summits...]

I had to stop at a Safeway to get some milk on the way home alst night and on the way to the dairy case I spied a bottle of Deschutes Red Chair IPA. Well, I have a duty to sample it for the loyal readers that tune in for my erudite discussion of economics, right? Sure. Seriously, this is a magnificent beer - hop-forward IPA but with low alpha acid hops (or at least I think this is the case) so you get seriously strong hop aroma and taste but without the heavy bitterness of, say, a Hop Henge. Wow - what a wonderful result. Good thing I only bought one. It is medium bodied, slightly more malty and darker than a typical IPA, but exceptionally balanced and eminently quaffable.  Yummy.

It made me think of the other new beer I have tried recently: after a long wait my local grocery finally started stocking 'Drifter' from the Bros. Widmer. This beer followed a similar philosophy, they used Summit hops to create a medium bodied pale ale that has the nice citrus-y aroma characteristic of Summits but without the bitterness as Summits are low alpha-acid. [Correction: they are actually quite high, thanks for the correction Stan]

What is interesting is the completely different approaches to the business of beer these two offerings represent. Drifter is a fine beer (but a bit far from my personal sweet spot - I like bitter): it is a mild, medium bodies pale ale that is designed to please the masses. My immediate thought was: "this is their Fat Tire fighter." In my mind this is a beer deliberately designed for mass appeal to a defined market that supports a huge volume of Fat Tire sales. "Let's go for that market," I can hear them saying. And, with luck, it will - it is a better beer than Fat Tire.

Deschutes is busy these days (with a stable of exceptional standard beers in place) pushing the fringes with specialty beers, cementing its reputation not only as an outstanding volume beer producer, but a truly top class boutique brewery as well. By doing this, I imagine they think they can keep up their reputation and keep getting noticed and thus the sales of the standard line up will be bolstered.

Widmer does this too, of course, but I wonder how much being a public corporation changes the incentives. Does always worrying about the return to investors cause a more intense focus on producing beers with mass appeal? I don't know, but I suspect so. It doesn't really matter - as long as they keep making good beers, I am happy to have both around. Oh and someone had switched out a couple of Drifers with some Hefewizen, and drinking them took me way back to when it all began and reminded me that, though my tastes have moved on, it is still a really good beer.


Stan Hieronymus said...

Agreed with what you are saying, but as a point of order Summit is high in alpha acids, 17% plus.

Patrick Emerson said...

Ooops, never let an economist discuss the finer points of beer...thanks Stan for the correction. Sorry 'bout that. I suppose it is just that you do not have to use very much to get the aroma out?

Stan Hieronymus said...

Aroma is a function of the qualities of the hops themselves and when you add them. Boil them long and the aroma "goes up the chimney."

DaveKnowsPDX said...

I think Drop Top Amber might be a more likely "Fat Tire fighter" for Widmer. Like Fat Tire it's remarkably sweet and bland.

Jeff Alworth said...

Alpha acids are catalyzed by boiling. The less time you leave them in the kettle, the less time they have to catalyze. However, the lovely hop cone has many other chemical elements, many of which are so volatile that they're burned off in the boil. Add hops later, and these flavors and aromas stick around. Often, you'll hear "aroma" discussed in late hop additions, but you also get flavor. That's why some beers have tons of hops, a deeply saturated hop flavor, but not a lot of bitterness. Your fave brewery, Ninkasi, adds tons of hops all along, and the result is a beer that is bitter, but also richly scented and flavorful, too.

(High-alpha hops are generally regarded as poor flavor and aroma hops, but this isn't uniformly true. I just dry-hopped with Chinooks, and they're among the best for that.)

On the Widmer business strategy: I disagree. Drifter doesn't have a lot of IBUs, but it's characterful and unique. The better example is Deschutes, whose huge market share was achieved not by developing extreme beers, but extremely well-made, distinctive beers like Mirror Pond and Black Butte. Flat Tire is insipid and generic. Drifter is a rather risky bet to make something new. Whether it will be a flop, a modest hit, or a runaway isn't clear from the beer.

(I predict a smallish, but cult-like following.)