Divisive “Local” Craft Culture Clash Marketing

My own favorite local.
 

Stan linked to this story a few days ago. It got me thinking… but not fast, “get me to the keyboard” thinking. It was this bit at the beginning that got me mulling:

I was watching a video online when it was interrupted by a commercial for Budweiser. The name of the spot was “Do You Know Where Your Beer Is Brewed?” Soft guitar music played while clips of idyllic landscapes and sunrises peaking over breweries slid across the screen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The gentle voice of the narrator says, “With 12 breweries spread all across the United States, your next Budweiser is closer than you think.” Budweiser hangs its hat on the fact that it can produce the same beer at 12 facilities and it will always taste exactly the same no matter where you drink it. No small feat, to be sure. But then the voice adds, “You might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer.” My eyes narrowed and my brow furrowed. ‘What in the heck is this?” I exclaimed. “That is our word!”

Our word? There’s a lot of weird words in there. Not the least of which is “our” – whose the hecks is that referring to? Don’t get me wrong. I like the work of the author Jeff Baker just fine. He’s the manager of the Farmhouse Bar and Grill in Vermont. Nice place. Real nice. Just not my local. Because “local” can mean that, too. The distance of the drinker from the drink.

But that’s not his point. It sorta illustrates mine but that’s not really the goal of where I am going. He is asking about local ingredients. If you want that world, go back 200 years and have a look at the Vassar day book with local beer being made of local grain and hops being sold back in small batches to the farmers and tavern keepers of the central Hudson Valley just getting back to some sort of normal after the devastation cause by the Revolution. This is the mid-1830s book but in the 1808-11 book the economies of beer are clearly still defined by the cart horse. That is actual local brewing. Are we willing to go there? Doubt it. You don’t really want local. You want some local. Now and then. But you want the global economy beer made with the best ingredients brewed on the newest, bestest equipment. Right?

Craft beer and macro are not all that far apart in this respect. Brewed on computerized stainless steel to a scale and upon a recipe that meets the needs and budgets of their respective clients. The only actual local thing that is reliably present at the brewery is the staff. Hard to be a brewer who lives over 45 miles from the brewery. There’s a hint by the way. If the person discussing the beer in your glass doesn’t live about that close, not a brewer. Sales guy, likely… owner, sure… but that’s all. Both use good foreign malt and distant, shipped in hops. Both tweek their water and yeast to match those found elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I like “local” just fine. It just means, for me, the bok choi and beets I have growing out there in the yard. Not beer.

When anyone in beer – whether Bud or craft – claims a word like “local” or “small” or “real” there is marketing going on – even if only to a small circle. Even if only to the speaker. It’s all unnecessary. When I think of Bud, I think of the brewery at Baldwinsville, New York to my south where local people earn a decent wage. If I have a decent hoppy IPA, I think of the three nations and seven generations needed to make the beer exist. Beer is global and has been since at least the 1400s when the Hanseatic League was beginning to ship Baltic brewed hoppy beer to the Low Countries. Except for odd examples like postwar agricultural collapses like Vassar faced in 1808. Except for that, it’s been beer or large parts of it hauled out from the hold as often as not since the Dark Ages. Good non-local beer.

Vermont: The Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Burlington

Back from the road. There is still time ahead away from work but my banker and I agree that we would do well to pull back from the Atlantic shore and pull into the driveway. Not that I am grumbling. It was the attack on marine life that I had been hoping for. Good restaurants are a training ground for both manners and inquiry. Or at least that’s what I tell the bankers. I picked Farmhouse Tap & Grill for Sunday brunch, however, for one thing – line avoidance. See, it is a place that you have half a chance of getting a beer from Vermont’s celebrated brewery Hill Farmstead without driving off the road, up the hill and apparently waiting in line. Not a training ground for manners or inquiry. My own, that is.

 

 

 

 

First, this was brunch and it was a good one. By chance, we hit the place in a lull that turned into a blur of plates, eggs and coffee cups. And In that blur a mistake was made. A blessed mistake. We were served the wrong thing. When I pointed out that the Farmhouse sandwich was not mushroom and kale laced Eggs Benedict, we were told not to worry, to nibble on that and the proper order would be out soon. I scoffed the lot. I did offer to pay for both but there was none of that. So I upped the tip. Tipping well on the right occasion is a proper lesson for the young as well. Shun those who calculate closely after sharing a meal or a few pints. Shun them.

The beer from Hill Farmstead was named Edward. I thought we were past the inside baseball naming of beer but I guess not. Edward was the brewers’ grandfather. I will think of this as Gramp’s Pale Ale from herein out. It’s a bitter pale ale with weedy and black tea hop over, my companions agreed, apricot fruity malt. Not really the citrus and pine as advertised but that’s par for the course, right? Its creamy texture was cut by bite of the hopping. Minerally without being drying and dour. A fitting companion for drippy egg and kale. A lovely appetizing beer which cost $6.5 for a 12 oz snifter. Fine for one at a brunch but a bit steep for the session which its weight at just over 5% might invite.

 

 

 

 

An excellent place. The sort of place in the sort of city you can build a weekend trip around. I took photos of the drinks menu which I thought might be good fodder for discussion. I will post them in a bit when I figure out a handy way to display them. Quebec beers seem to earn a premium while some US craft were quite modest. It struck me as uneven. But the marketplace is a good educator in relative value. Or so I told the kids. School is coming up, I said. Back to math class.

NCPR On Hop Farming In Ferrisburgh, Vermont

My local public radio station, North Country Public Radio, had a great story today as part of it’s series on Faming Under 40 that runs all this week. Today’s installment is called “New Direction for an Old Farm” and described how the next generation on a 210 year family mixed farm is trying out hops:

…last year Joe’s youngest son, Ian, approached him with an idea to grow hops in the lower field. Ian is 26 years old and his friend, Fletcher Bach, 23, had gotten him interested in brewing beer. They wanted to try growing hops – which flavors and preserves beer – instead of buying it. “We started with sixteen plants,” Ian Birkett said. “We were like, these are growing really well here. So we kind of put our heads together, wrote a business plan, and now we are on year two and we have 850 plants.”

The operation is called Square Nail Hops Farm. It has a Facebook page. They are getting in touch with the right advancement programs. They are getting involved with academic research. And they are selling to craft brewers. A great story.

Why Do Names For This New Beer Style Kinda Suck?

Forget the question of whether styles are real and essential. Forget the question of whether beer styles have been accurately described and traced historically. The real issue is that the names of beer styles are a mess and cause consumer confusion. Andy raises the question of the name of one black hoppy brew and seeks resolution for this very good reason:

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

He then goes on to ask us to choose from a number of choices that have been bouncing around beer nerd circles like Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. There is only one problem. They all suck as names. Let’s be clear. They aren’t related to India and they aren’t pale, as Andy notes, but also no one outside of the Pacific NW actually knows what “Cascadian” really means. Plus, while the picture of me from 1992 shows I have a great long love of the Vermont Pub and Brewery and the work of the late Greg Noonan, the idea of calling it “Noonan Black Ale” suffers from the same problem, needing to know some sort of back story. Also, there is a minor sort of beer – perhaps not a style at all – that you see from time to time called Dark Ale. What’s it taste like? Dark? That’s like something tasting ice cold.

We can do better. We can make sense. If the point of the name of the style is to inform let’s get to the point. The beer is black and it is bitter. Keep it simple. So call it Black Bitter. I might even try the stuff if it was called a name as swell as that.¹

¹Plus it already comes with its own 70s rock tune for the ad campaign. Just have to change the words a bit: “Whoa-oh Black Bitter! Bam-a-lam!!!” And, yes, I want credit.

Is It True? Has Vermonster Been Saved??

There seems to be some news happening this suppertime around the Vermonster saga-ette with news today from the website of Rock Art Brewery and via their Twitter account. Vermont Public Radio seems to have a tidbit more than I am seeing elsewhere on the why and the wherefore of the outcome… even if they get the name of the beer wrong:

Vermontster president Matt Nadeau is cautious about spelling out the agreement before getting instructions from his attorney. But he will say that Monster has agreed to withdraw its cease and desist letter, provided that Vermontster doesn’t try to break in to the ‘energy drink’ market.

If that is true, what a come down for the litigious Hansens Beverage Company, taking a kick in the teeth and putting a shadow on its brands only to force Rock Art into submitting to agree… to not do what it never intended to do. Brilliant. And all of a sudden little Rock Art is well known in craft brewing circles. Bonus.

More On That US Trademark Law Facing Vermonster

You know, it’s fun to learn new things. Today, for example, I learned how to use the search tool at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A great example of open government, you can even see the emails on the Office’s file listed as Notation to File – thrill to the bureaucratic reality, baby. Why’d I do it? Well, because Hansen Beverage Company, the makers of a jittery soda pop called Monster, has issued a press release about their reasons for objecting to the application filed by Rock Art Brewery to trademark their beer called The Vermonster. In part, they state:

In order to protect Hansen’s valuable Monster Energy® trademarks, Hansen is legally obliged to, and routinely sends, “cease and desist” letters to, and where appropriate, pursues litigation against, entities and persons who use or attempt to register similar trademarks for products that are similar or related to Monster Energy® products. A “cease and desist” letter was sent to Rock Art Brewery on September 4, 2009… Hansen has not, and does not, target or single out one company over any other, nor distinguish between big or small companies or individuals when enforcing our trademarks.

To be fair to Hansen, that is true. For example, when one looks at the registration by Coca-cola of a drink called “Monster Refreshment” you can see that Hansen does object to others and is not afraid to take on companies far bigger than they are. Hansen actually seems to be involved with a whopping ninety-nine trial or appeal files of one sort or another at the moment. So, they are not picking on Rock Art – though what I see are other firms using “monster” somehow and not just a word, as with Vermonster, containing “monster” or some a step further. What would the do if faced with a “-onster” word like “Sue-me-nonster” beer? I have no idea.

Sometimes trademark applications just go away as when the Brooklyn Brewery abandoned its trademark application for its Monster Ale barley wine in 2005. No idea why they did that. They seem to have all their other brands in he system including the as yet unmade and somewhat mysterious Local 3. Sometimes they are resolved as when Hansen bought the rights to a beer brand called Flathead Lake Monster in 2006… though it doesn’t say for how much. Actually, Flathead Lake Monster Ale seems to have gone away about the same time. There was a Flathead Lake Brewery in 2008 but that seems to have gone, too.

But one trademark didn’t seem to get protected by Hansen. The one for Monster Malt Liquor. It was deemed abandoned by the Patent and Trademark Office who sent Hansen’s lawyer this Notice of Abandonment on 20 July 2009. See, Hansen failed to file a document called a “Statement of Use” even though they were given three extensions to make that filing. Because, presumable, they did “use” the name by making a beer called “Monster.” Or, I think, make any beer at all for that matter. I guess in that respect beer and jittery soda pop are very different things.

Will Hansen’s abandonment of their one intended beer trademark make a difference? Will it matter to their argument that Vermonster causes confusion when it is pointed out that they could not put even a malt liquor on store shelves? I have no idea – but you sorta think it should, right? Interestingly, another factor that might affect the outcome is that soda and beer are in the same trademark goods and services category called “light beverages” which is separate from both wine (listed under “alcoholic beverages”) and coffee (listed under “staples”). A quirk? Not important? Who knows?

Meanwhile, you know things are getting more jittery than usual at Hansen HQ as Monster Energy may have stopped tweeting. the push back and the boycott grow. Because the consumer doesn’t need to wait for a ruling from the Patent and Trademark Office, right?

If “Vermonster” Is Confusing – Isn’t “Monster” Worse?

Much is being made of a legal claim being brought against Rock Art, a small Vermont brewer, who makes “Vermonster” beer by a premium soda pop maker whose brands include “Monster” energy pop for confusing the brand – especially since the claim is being made in the name of the soda company’s plans to enter into the beer market. But not so much is being made on this point noted by one Green Mountain State publication:

Rock Art isn’t the only Vermonster out there. Ben & Jerry’s has long used the name for a massive tub of ice cream available at its shops. A spokeswoman for the company said she was not aware of any trademark issues with the name. “Vermonster” is also the name of a series of truck rallies in Bradford. Brooklyn Brewing Co. makes a barley wine called “Monster Ale.” A representative to the company declined to discuss whether Hansen had challenged its use of the name.

OK, that is a few points but you see my point, right. Good old Brooklyn Beer has had a beer called “Monster” on the shelf for quite a number of years. I have one in my stash right now. Simmering in its own wickedness, no doubt. There are others, too. Will they all get sued? The Bee-to-the-Ay lists 34 monstrous craft beers on the market already. What if all craft brewers shared in the idea and put out their own Monster and “-onster” branded beers, too?

We are only at the stage of the legal letter sent, we are told, by the specialist intellectual property law firm Knobb, Martens, Olsen & Bear. Which is good. There is still time to think of the big picture. It may well be that the negative reaction to the note may well lead the Hansen Beverage Company to reconsider their strategy. They look like they want to get along and have a happy name in the marketplace. Who doesn’t? Hard to overcome bad press.

Vermont: Craft Brewer Greg Noonan Passes Away

Very sad news this morning of the passing of Greg Noonan, founder of the Vermont Pub and Brewery as well as author of a number of important books on brewing. There is a thread of condolences over at BeerAdvocate with many sharing their memories of him.

Seven Barrel Brewery Brewer’s Handbook constantly during my former glory-ish days of home brewing. The idea of having one book showing the same recipe for extract, part mash and full mash implied a lot. It said that it was worth getting started and trying to excel. It also told me that it was a very reasonable goal to try and brew dozens and dozens of beer on your path. There was something of the tone of a patient teacher in that book as well as in his other book on my shelf, Scotch Ale, that set them apart and fit right in with the memories people are sharing today.

But it were my trips to the Vermont Pub and Brewery that I immediately recalled on hearing of his death. Almost two decades ago now, a pal of mine and I went on a tear of a road trip starting out in Ottawa, looping into NY state and ending up at the VPB on a Saturday night, trying whatever they had on tap. It was the summer of 1990 back when the beard was still red, the shirts not so tight. We were blown away by the way his place showed the range of possibilities after years of accepting what the Canadian market gave you – not to mention the realization that you could just have a small palace to the honour of good beer, good pub food and enjoying company in the corner of any town… your town, too. For the years since, it’s been a regular stop on the family’s trips from Ontario back to the east Coast. Think I will pull out that old VPB crow t-shirt today (if it still fits) and find me a Vermont beer no doubt born out of his great example and inspiration.

Vermont: Odd Notion Fall ’09, Magic Hat, SoBurl

If Google is anything to go by – and it might well turn out to be – then I have clearly had a fair number of beers by Magic Hat. Like the buttery goodness. Like the quirky branding. Like the experimentations. This beer is one of there recent Odd Notions and I am told it is a stout, which it is, but was not told to expect smoked malt. It’s like a black thick stout with about 10% rauchbier added. Quite yummy stuff. Pours deep dark with a thin deep brown rim. Fine mocha foam verging on the burgundy tinged. It gives scents of cream, dark plum as well as a little roastiness. These continue in the swish with cocoa, earthiness, smoke, date, and a whack of other dark favours all in a reasonably big body which is also moreish. Quite the nicest stout I have had in a while.

Three bottles in each mixed 12-pack this autumnal season. Best of their special brews which I have had yet. Plenty of BAer love though they call it a Belgian dark unlike the brewery.

Vermont: Odd Notion Spring ’09, Magic Hat, SoBurl

Extreme. Experimental. Weird. Weirdo. That is my new sliding scale to express a facet of the craft brewing world, like the crap-snob continuum. Granted it is only half the scale, missing the BFW¹ – X3M portion to the left. But it is a good scale and Odd Notion Spring 2009 inspired it.

One problem with “extreme” is that right now it’s the centre of the pack. This beer points out that there is plenty of room beyond extreme, including places you will likely not visit again. Because this beer and those like it are weird. Last spring’s peaty brown ale called Odd Notion helped generate a lot of heat over diacetyl that I don’t expect to be repeated with this one’s poppy seed and agave flavours. Will not one defend the honour of the agave? Who stands for the poppy? None.

It pours an attractive orange amber with a nice sheeting white head. But the smell is like a fresh and well-crafted beer trying to replicate the smell of an old, off skunky one. In the mouth, it’s a bit like fancy hotel soap, the stuff you put on a bad sunburn made from cactus as well as that hard astringent poppiness. There is other stuff in there like a little orange marmalade and maybe a bilious note. It is hard to explain but for all that, this is not entirely off-putting given that (1) it is generated in large part by the poppy seed, a taste I took to when I worked in Poland and (2) I have been sunburned a lot and support the post sun burn lotion industry. But it is weird. Yet not quite a weirdo. Good BAer support.