A Stella Artois promo recently found in a Louisville-area bar details “The Stella Artois Pouring Ritual” in nine steps, from using the right glass (called a “chalice” in the guide) for the Belgian import beer to creating the right amount of head to capture “the crisp flavors.”
The tagline for this golden brew: “Perfection has its price.” And that price, in most of the bars around Louisville, is between four and five bucks a pop. Stella is one of many “premium” imports to land in America recently aimed at satisfying the ever-evolving American palate.
But guess what? In Belgium, Stella Artois is considered mass-produced swill.
“Stella is the Old Milwaukee or Busch of Belgium, but over here it’s high-priced goods,” Dave Gausepohl, the main beer purchaser for Kentucky’s Bryant Distributing, said. “It’s easy to deceive people with an image, but in Belgium it doesn’t have near the connotation it does in other parts of the world.”
That high-quality, high-priced import you’re drinking? It might actually be more high-priced than high-quality — nevertheless, it carries an important connotation: The public, looking for something different, is drinking more imports and craft brews than ever. Craft beer sales rose nearly 12 percent in 2006, according to the Oregon-based non-profit Brewers Association, and data from a MindBranch.com market research study suggests that beer drinkers are “trading up” because they see import and craft beers as an affordable luxury.
Put simply, the trend is toward drinking two imports or craft beers instead of four Buds or Miller Lites. The cost may be the same, but there is a perception of heightened value and enjoyment.
“People are tired of the bland, homogenized, fizzy yellow beers,” Gausepohl said. “For the money, why can’t they reward themselves?”
The trend isn’t really new. With sales of Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, etc., threatened by microbrows in the 1990s and early 2000s, Anheuser-Busch and its mass-market competitors resorted to creating “mockrobrews” — beers intended to compete with rising micro-brands like Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada — and other products meant to vaguely resemble premium drinks, such as flavored beverages like Smirnoff Ice.
But the beer-drinking public wasn’t buying. So the next reaction was for A-B and its ilk to battle the competition by distributing imports alongside its own beers (it wasn’t so long ago when A-B tried to force its distributors to sell nothing but A-B products, so this latest strategy is telling).
Still, for the moment it’s image, and not necessarily quality, that is prompting many Americans to buy Stella or Warsteiner instead of Bud.
Why? For one, those beers aren’t terribly complex in flavor. But mainly it’s because beer is an industrial commodity, said Roger Baylor, owner of New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany, and a general all-around beer aficionado. “You spend your money marketing beer, not making it” when you’re trying to appeal to the masses, he said. “Big beer brands are like soap or anything else you can sell in a supermarket.”
But with commoditization also comes choice. Where there were 50 or 60 breweries in America just 20 years ago, now there are thousands, and the imports keep coming. This trend is not lost on Anheuser-Busch, which most recently resorted to importing Budvar (called Czechvar here in the states), a brand that has for years been Budweiser’s bitter rival overseas because of trademark disputes.
“America has more choice now than it ever has,” Baylor said. “The craft market has been ever-growing. A-B wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think it was growing.”
“Anheuser-Busch is writing checks (for distribution rights) like there’s no tomorrow,” Gausepohl added. “For 25 years, they threw rocks at the microbreweries and said, ‘What a cute little fad.’ Now they’ve gone the other direction.”
A-B recently linked up with European exporter InBev for rights to import and distribute a number of top European brands. In short, if you are buying a Bass, Stella, Beck’s or Hoegaarden, you’re still putting money into the giant’s pockets. Even Chicago’s popular micro, Goose Island Brewery, distributes its products through Anheuser-Busch.
But this kind of commoditization is also why we now have beers like Smithwick’s, the popular red Irish ale that landed here three years ago. Smithwick’s was originally created by an independent brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland, that was bought by Guinness in the 1960s. It was popular overseas, but wasn’t exported to the United States because the exporter distributing Guinness also was selling Bass. When Bass fell to InBev, Guinness owner Diageo sent Smithwick’s here to compete.
The result: more choice and awareness. The homogenized American beers of the 1970s and ’80s have gradually given way to more varied imports and craft beers, even in the aisles of your local supermarket. Baylor likes to note that wine lists are among the most carefully chosen and pored-over aspects of many restaurants, so why not beer lists?
Look around town and you’ll notice more and more restaurants paying attention to their beer lists. Maido Essential Japanese Cuisine and Sake Bar on Frankfort Avenue is a prime example. Jim Huie nurtures his beer list almost as much as his co-owner wife Toki nurtures the menu. On it, one can find the standard easy-drinking Japanese staple, Kirin Ichiban (distributed by A-B), the delicious and more flavorful Morimoto Soba Ale by Rogue Brewing of Oregon and the compelling Belgian dark ale McChouffe, among others. There is not a Bud, Coors or Miller product to be found.
“I don’t drink it myself,” Huie said of the American beers. “I could make more money if I did, but everything isn’t about making money. I put beers in that I think have a lot of flavor.”
He is aware of losing exactly one customer in three years from not having Bud Light (it was a woman who ordered one, was denied and then walked out after seeing the beer list and saying, “I don’t think so”). He also believes he has retained many customers at least partly as a result of offering beers like Bell’s Brewery’s tongue-bashing HopSlam. Discovery is a trend, at least at Maido.
Gausepohl concurs. “The Buds, the Millers and Coors of the world have become my dad’s beer,” he said. “They’re the Falls Cities, Sterlings and Oertelses of the past. All the sudden everybody knows what an IPA is, and a porter. And those who don’t know, they’re curious. And unlike wine, beer isn’t standoffish. It’s much more accessible.”
Congratulations, Americans. We’ve survived the assault of the fizzy yellow beer. A-B has abandoned its totalitarian rule in favor of free commerce and choice. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — for a beer.
And make it a craft beer, if you please.
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