January 9, 2007

Mug Shots: A beer by any other name

As a professional publican, and as an aficionado of beer in private life, my beer taste operates under a general principle of differentiation. Exactly what is it about a particular beer that makes it different? How does it differ from others of the same style? Is it sufficiently different to merit an extra effort to procure, or is it the sort of beer you’d be happy to drink at the brewery’s taproom, but wouldn’t seek out otherwise? For me, labels, graphics or extraneous enticements are not sufficient to achieve differentiation, nor is the consumption locale and context. The cream of the microbrewed crop combines marketing, art and product originality (think Stone, Three Floyds and Bell’s), and the beer has to be good even after you’ve poured it into a glass (as you should!) and recycled the empty bottle. As for consumption locale and context, a beer must still be good even if you’re not drinking it in the company of a hot date, lounging at the trendiest ski resort in Colorado or cheering your team to a playoff win. People often mistake beer quality for other memorable or enjoyable external factors. Differentiation? I’m swimming against the tide. Graphics move products off crowded store shelves, and so do clever ad campaigns showing a sunny beach and a bottle of insipid Corona. But genuine craft brewers should concentrate on the essence of beer, not the ephemeral. There is chilly hostility in my heart for microbreweries that come up with great names and proceed to wrap them around ordinary beers, because these are the marketing tactics of multinational brewing factories, which can afford pricier bikinis and computer enhancements. But I’ll spare the guilty parties the shame of identifying them here. Learn to differentiate, and you’ll be able to spot them yourself. Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. He writes about beer for Food & Dining magazine. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.