In the increasingly crowded field of craft beers, new brews are trying to stand out not for hops or bold flavors — but because they’re highly drinkable, tastier versions of Budweiser or Miller.
This week, Redhook Brewery, based in Washington State, launched what it calls a Game Changer. Quite literally, that’s the name of the new brew, a pale ale that’s been freshly put on tap at 925 U.S. locations of the Buffalo Wild Wings chain. For now Game Changer is only available on tap, not at retail locations, so there’s an air of exclusivity about it at Buffalo Wild Wings. The price point is expected to be a little higher than a mass-produced domestic beer, and slightly cheaper than a high-end craft beer. In terms of flavor, Game Changer is supposed to pair well with spicy wings and sports on TV. And what kind of beer does that?
“It’s an approachable craft beer that’s not too heavy or too high in alcohol, so people can enjoy drinking it responsibly over the course of a whole game,” Andy Thomas, president of the Craft Brew Alliance, which owns Redhook, said in a statement regarding Game Changer and the partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings.
Approachable and drinkable are among the terms often applied to Game Changer and other brews aiming for the masses. Sessionable is another. A beer that is sessionable is one that you can drink — and drink and drink — over the course of a long drinking session without feeling too bloated or full. For obvious reasons, bars and restaurants like the idea of a beer that patrons will keep on downing (and ordering) during, say, an afternoon of watching football on TV.
Patrick Kirk, beverage-innovation director for Buffalo Wild Wings, explained in a Q&A with Technomic, a food-and-beverage research firm, why the chain wanted its own special craft beer, and why it was important for the beer to be sessionable:
We’ve seen an interesting trend, a movement toward craft beers coming back down to be more sessionable, brewed with lower alcohol and an easy-to-drink mentality. That’s what our guest is demanding. If you’re going to stay for a game from kick-off to the end, you can’t really drink beers with 6% or 7% ABV throughout the game. It’s not possible from a responsible service and consumption standpoint, as well as from flavor perspective and a cost standpoint. But you need great flavor. The goal was to not be fully in the craft camp but to be a step up from domestics, and brew a well-balanced, full-flavored beer that hits the middle between 4% and 5% ABV. Game Changer is at 4.6% ABV, so it’s definitely sessionable.
In other words, the goal here is to create a beer that is less filling and tastes great. (Where have I heard that before?) Yes, in some ways craft brewers are marketing these new beers along the lines of the “drinkability” of Bud Light rather than as some niche product that can only be appreciated by hops connoisseurs. Only the craft brews genuinely taste better than Miller Lite or Bud Light, one hopes.
Another craft brew clearly aiming for mainstream tastes is Shot Beer, a Minnesota-based brewery. Or rather, the brand is based in Minnesota. The owners of Shot Beer, in fact, don’t do any brewing. Instead, they outsource the brewing of the lager to Minhas Craft Brewery in Wisconsin. In a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, Scott Schwalbe, a tech entrepreneur who launched Shot Beer as a start-up last year, explained that it’s no big deal that he doesn’t play a role in the actual brewing of the product:
“Contract manufacturing is what most of the world does today,” Schwalbe said. “Nobody really makes their own products. They outsource it. I said I would suspect that you could do the same thing in beer.”
And what does Shot taste like? “It’s easy-drinking, like Michelob Golden Light or Miller Genuine Draft,” Jon Fraser, the owner Buffalo Tap, which serves Shot Beer, told the Star Tribune. For the majority of craft brewers, such a description would probably be received as an insult. But not in this case. “People say it’s very flavorful and you don’t get flavor comments from lagers very often,” Fraser said about Shot Beer. “It fills a gap where there hadn’t been many new things in the lager category of beers. Lager drinkers have seen the same six or eight beers for the last 30 years.”
Schwalbe described Shot Beer in the Star Tribune story as a less bitter, less hoppy craft beer for folks who “still like a mainstream beer after mowing the grass or when they’re out on a boat. We’re trying to be positioned as the Midwest, the Minnesota brand to replace a Bud or a Miller. Once somebody tastes it, then we usually get them.”
Among hardcore craft-beer enthusiasts, though, it’s almost traitorous to want to create a beer that’s comparable to Budweiser, or even to push for mainstream appeal. “Craft brewers have claimed the moral high ground,” says Mark Davidson, founder of the beer-pricing-comparison site SaveonBrew.com. “We all know the party line: craft brew is made with love, macro-beer is evil.”
In which case, things like outsourcing the brewing of your beer and joining forces with a big corporate chain-restaurant partner are wrong, or at least against the established craft code.
While the craft-beer industry is growing like crazy, craft still only represents about 5% of all beer sales in the U.S. And the truly hops-crazed beer geeks represent a very small portion of all beer drinkers. Davidson says the vast majority of beer-drinking consumers choose brews largely for the same reason consumers choose any product — because it’s a good value. “As much as we love an underdog, as much as we love the entrepreneur, we really love a great deal,” he says. In the big picture, “most likely, the combination of taste, availability and, perhaps most importantly, cost is what drives sales.”