How the big brewers are staying relevant in craft beer
Whether you’re a brewer or just a beer lover, you’re living in interesting times. There’s been a collective shift away from the traditional brands offered by the Big Boys of Brewing for some time now. The new generation of sud-swiggers have elevated the status – and sales – of “craft” brews to the point where this sector is the only one in the industry showing serious signs of growth.
Given this, it was somewhat entertaining a while back to see Ontario’s now new premier campaigning on a platform of “buck a beer.” At a time when most are more than willing to spend upwards of three bucks on a bottle of designer brew, Dougie Ford’s bread and circuses promise to the “average Joe” fell predictably flat. A few (and I mean a very few) local breweries rose to the challenge only to prove that just because you can brew beer for a buck a bottle doesn’t mean you should. Most quality-minded producers were vocal about the actual cost of raw material, labour, and all the other fiddly bits required to make a palatable ale, and simply stated that $1.00 + bottle of beer was an incongruous equation, then went about over-hopping IPA’s to the point where gnawing on a pinecone would be a less resinous experience than drinking the stuff.
In any case, DoFo’s less than effervescent, beer-goggled vision of a 24 for $24 didn’t prevent him from being elected, and the whole debacle was quickly replaced by something even shinier and more distracting: legal weed, the latest catastrophe du jour. But now I’m just rambling.
So, if you’re a big brewer faced with an essentially flat market, what do you do to get back into the game? Well, if you’re a brewing titan like Anheuser-Busch InBev, you can just buy the competition.
Back in the summer, I attended the one-year anniversary of the Toronto location of Goose Island Beer Company. Originally based in Chicago, it was sucked up by AB InBev in 2011. Often when this sort of thing happens, the craftsmen are replaced by accountants and the whole contraption goes to hell. Not the case with GIBC. The only thing AB InBev seems to have changed is how much disposable income Goose Island now has. It’s operations (and distribution) have expanded considerably, and the brewmasters in each location have free reign to experiment, resulting in brews like the super-boozy Bourbon County Stout, and the off-the-wall limited-edition Mature Situations – a Belgian-style triple infused with honey.
Another way for a big brewer like AB InBev to stay relevant today, is to reinvent one of yesterday’s (and today’s) most iconic brands, in this case the venerable Budweiser.
Admittedly, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic when asked to partake of the Budweiser Brewery Fresh experience when the invite came in. I mean, Budweiser? But since I’m game for pretty much anything (within reason – and a beer experience seemed reasonable), I opted in.
The Experience entails enjoying ultra-fresh, unpasteurized, unfiltered Bud that’s been tanked in cold and fresh from the brewery (in this case the Labatt London Ontario brewery) – a mere three hour’s drive from where I enjoyed it (the Budweiser Stage on downtown Toronto’s lakefront). In essence, I was tasting Bud the way a Budweiser brewer would taste it. And I was doing so with Michelle Tham, beer cicerone and beer education master at Labatt. Crisp, lively, and super-clean, this was essentially “Bud Nouveau,” and it went down without contest on that hot July evening.
Another thing an established brand (like, say, Budweiser) can try in order to shake things up is to, well, shake things up. Since whisky starts life as an un-hopped beer, why not team up with a whisky distiller and release something a bit different. Enter Budweiser Copper Lager. To craft this strong (6.2% ABV) number, the Budweiser folks enlisted staves from barrels used to age Jim Beam Bourbon to assist in the aging of their brew. The end result is certainly a different Bud. Notes of caramel, malt, and toasted grain lead into a medium-bodied, lightly carbonated brew with malty caramel, dried fruit and nut flavours, with an impressively long finish. A limited run only for BC and Alberta, one hopes that we see this again – in more places!