Craft Beer Wants to Be Less Filling, Taste Great

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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.

(MORE: After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?)

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.

(MORE: Trouble Brewing: The Craft Beer vs. ‘Crafty’ Beer Catfight)

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.”

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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.”

33 comments
TheFitz
TheFitz

The beer lovers would be better served talking about flavor and fun times, not politics, associations, ownership, corporate structures.  Sam Adams is a huge, huge company, so is Miller.  The difference isnt the brews, it's the drinkers, people like us who care enough to spend more for beer than soda.  

craftbeermonger
craftbeermonger

Sorry, but Red Hook does not qualify as a "Craft Brewer" under the definition laid out by the American Brewer's Association, which states that a 'Craft Brewery' may not be more than 25% owned by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.  Red Hook is 32.2% owned by AB/InBev (Aka: Budweiser), and Bud controls much of what Red Hook is doing these days. 

billraa
billraa

It is sadly true...I do look for value.  When I see Cantillon or 3 Foenteinen at a shop for less than $20/bottle I am forced to buy all of it.  So, yes, a great beer at a great price point is very important ;)

StephenBody
StephenBody

Craft beer does NOT want to become Budweiser. This article is a mish-mash of erroneous conclusions and pablum from "industry insiders" who are servicing their ongoing agenda to convince people that the mega-brewers basically make te same quality beer as crafts, which is ridiculous. If anything, craft brewing evolved as a complete repudiation of everything that BudMillerCoors stands for. Bold flavors, little or no filtration, every ingredient, malt bill, and hop variety under the sun, and a total rejection of the formulaic style of the watery yellow Pilsner that's been America's ONLY beer for over a century. To simplify: Ab/InBev, Bud's parent company, owns a big chuck of the absurdly-named Craft Beer Alliance, the name of which is a smoke screen behind which Bud attempts to hide their never-ending efforts to recapture market share that's being bled off by craft brewing. They also now own Goose Island, a formerly great brewery that's now being "efficiencied" to death by AB. Red Hook, which used to be one of the ONLY breweries here in the Pacific Northwest, has become less than an afterthought to beer lovers up here, because their quality took an instant nose-dive when they hooked up with AB and has never recovered. "Game Changer" is aptly named because it's AB's attempt to steer all of us contrarian craft beer freaks back to beers styles like Bud...and this silly article is really little more than a press release from AB/InBev. 

I AM a beer industry insider. I work in this business every day of my life and have for over 20 years. Craft beer is in NO WAY veering toward BudMillerCoors. It's headed the opposite direction so fast it leaves a blue streak.

AlexKotlyar
AlexKotlyar

Bud owns about 30% of CBA, this comes from owning about 50% of Redhook before the creation of CBA.  They do distribute their beers but the beers are not brewed by Bud.  

BeerGuy
BeerGuy

I agree, quality and flavor are key IMO.   Maybe not for others.    One interesting fact; although craft beer sales were only 6.5%, 50% of draft beer sales were craft beer.   That trend is what has the attn of the big brewers.

TheFitz
TheFitz

It's cool people care about beer.  We the drinkers can decide things like what tastes good and what's drinkable. I focus on what's in the glass, y'all, not who made it.

BeerGuy
BeerGuy

Redhook distributes its products through a network of wholesale distributors, Craft Brew Alliance Inc, and a distribution agreement with Anheuser-Busch InBev, Incorporated. Redhook distributed its products in 48 states, as of March 31, 2008.

Anheuser-Busch InBev owns 32.2%[6] of the business. Brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer, founders of Widmer Brothers beer, own a combined 18%[7] of Craft shares

EmilyBee
EmilyBee

My favorite quote is,  "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."

If you love beer, really love the art, the history and the heritage, then stay alert about the difference between micro-style and the fake craft like Red Hook, Sam Adams and Sierra.  If you like "easy drinking" just drink Bud, it's good for that.  If you want something special, demand that craft stay special.  That is my opinion.

KatBells
KatBells

This article is great.  Microbreweries have been duped by the big craft monsters for so long and now we all can see that the big boys want to crush the little artisan beers.  Big craft beers are trojan horses and will kill of the specialized guys.  

jefnvk
jefnvk

Ah yes, craft beer, not microbrew.  Give it a name that makes it sound upscale and makes the unaware think they're buying something fancy when they're simply buying from one of the big boys.

If you're big enough to immediately have a new beer in 925 locations nationwide, or can (more importantly, would) outsource your production, you're not really what I would consider crafty....

KeithAntul
KeithAntul

Craft market share by volume is 6.5% not 5, and it's 10.2% by dollars. IPA is the highest-grossing craft category, outselling craft-made "pale lagers" 6-to-1.

JasonACovey
JasonACovey

Brad Tuttle, did you even bother to do any significant research or did you just get a call from Buffalo Wild Wings or Budweiser with a hot tip? 

burkebrian8
burkebrian8

Yes, I cannot believe they did not identify Redhook as a Budweiser owned (aka the Craft Brew Alliance).  I think it is quite relevant in this story.  

josephslima
josephslima

Session beers are not a new invention (see Beer Advocate post http://beeradvocate.com/articles/653). Yes, the large brewers will probably co-opt the term through their "crafty" divisions. Still, the American palate has trended towards paler style beers for close to a century ("Tasting Beer" by Randy Mosher gives an excellent historical overview). An example of a great tasting session beer is Barstool from Foolproof Brewing (http://www.foolproofbrewing.com/beers), I am sure there are other examples. There is a huge opportunity for craft brewers to reach a wider audience.

MarshallLaw
MarshallLaw

What horse crap  Redhook IS Budweiser.  This is just another free (?) advertisement for the big macro brewers courtesy of Time, just like all their "craft beer" articles.  Go away, Time.  

KatBells
KatBells

@craftbeermonger I'm back! Let's look at @TheFitz when he/she says we should let the drinker decide what's what.  I'm down with that.  This association and that association is just politics and big business.  Taste and fun are what matter to me.  What matters to you?

TheFitz
TheFitz

@StephenBody Drinkers should decide quality not just insiders.  We are talking about beer, not rockets, there is no special knowledge.  Some beer tastes good, some tastes better.  If you love Sam's Summer, drink it.  If you like Bud Lite, drink that.  The Craft Beer Alliance is no more absurd than the Brewers Association because Sam Adams is no more a craft-sized brewer than Miller.  It's a billion dollar company, and that's not bad, but it's not craft. Beer, drink it, don't fight about it.

EmilyBee
EmilyBee

@BeerGuy Thanks for clearing that up for me.  RH distributes its beer through a "network of wholesale distributors" that's connected to Bud, but their beer is not brewed by Bud and their choice to compete with Bud as a hotwing paring seems to dispel the points made below by @burkebrian8.  There is no sneakiness here, unlike Sam Adams.

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

@EmilyBee what's fake about Sam Adams or Sierra?  They're two of the best breweries on the planet and turn out great beers consistently.  Because they make a lot and you can find it everywhere?  

Granted, I'm not a huge fan of Sam Adam's standard brews, but their specialty offerings are top-notch.  Sierra makes issues all year long that are outstanding too.  

arv301
arv301

@JasonACovey Journalists tend to be as ignorant about what they are covering as the general public. They can fill their stories with anything for common consumption and make their deadlines as well!

FurbishLousewart
FurbishLousewart

@KatBells @craftbeermonger @TheFitz That's pretty naive, don't you think? I mean, as a consumer you have all this power, you can't focus on just one aspect of a product. If you buy that product, you are supporting everything that it represents. If the tastiest beer in the world was brewed by a dictator with proven human rights violations, would you buy it? I mean, it's the best tasting! Might even have a cool little logo. I know that's an extreme, ridiculous analogy, but I think it gets my point across: There's more to beer than how it tastes. Buy locally and you support small entrepreneurial business. Or, buy massive corporation beer, just recognize that the "taste and fun" don't come alone - you support the borderline monopolistic business that controls distribution.

timtalkstoomuch
timtalkstoomuch

RH is majority owned, through the "Alliance" by Bud/InBev, do you see that anywhere on the label or marketing? They're not only well known for mistreating their workers, in the industry they're known for selling out to macro years ago. And to be fair make mediocre at best beers. So yes there us sneakiness.

Whereas everybody who cares to know about the industry knows exactly who and what SN and Boston are.

And there is exactly zero things wrong with contract brewing. Its about what and how you brew, not wheter or not you own your own equipment.

EmilyBee
EmilyBee

@paul.alan.robertson @EmilyBee Hi Paul.  There is nothing wrong with any beer, so I guess "fake" is the wrong word.  My observation is about the words "craft" or "micro".  If you like drinkable beer for a decent price, drink bud.  If you desire the art aspect and the labor of love story with brews, support them by staying vigilant.  I think the Boston Beer Company is sneaky and hides its massive scale behind its craft brews.  That was my real point.

EmilyBee
EmilyBee

@paul.alan.robertson @EmilyBee Yes, I think we are almost saying the same thing.  Beer lovers should be on the look out for fakery across the board.  There may be nothing better than having a Dogfish Punkin' and a cassoulet in October or an old fashioned, white label Budweiser after 9 holes of golf.  The drinker should decide what is craft, not the marketing officers of the brewing companies.

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

@EmilyBee @paul.alan.robertson Fair enough.  It's a marketing thing, I agree.  But scale alone doesn't tell you the quality of beer.  anheuser busch has some of the best quality control in the world.  If they wanted to make beer with better ingredients, I have every faith it would be top-notch.  Boston Beer makes good beer, regardless how much they make.  

If you were talking about Shiner or Yeungling, or maybe even Blue Moon, who hide mediocre beer in a "crafty"-looking label, then I'd think you had a more salient point.