Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fakery and the Illusion of Variety.

As a reminder that beer is part of the wider food business and its trends, here is an article from the weekend, from the AP's food industry writer: "As tastes change, big food makers try hipster guises."

The headline and top of the article are preoccupied with "hipsters," which is a distraction. What really jumps out are the companies -- I don't care about their size -- arguably using deception to appeal to a crowd searching for something unique.

There are obvious parallels there with the "fake brewers" issue that troubles Belgian beer people. Even the Wall Street Journal covered it. I'm also seeing it happen in Germany, as people naturally want to cash in on "craft" and its higher price tag.

At least one of my editors is tired of this topic. [Deep sigh.] I'm clearly not done beating the horse though. Because nothing has changed, really. It still kicks. Well, it kicks me anyway.

Part of researching Belgian breweries is trying to sort out which ones are actual breweries and which are pretenders. That way we can tell you about them. There are all sorts of pretenders, many shades of gray. I try to stick to this: A "brewer" is someone who actually brews beer, while a "brewery" is a building with a functioning brewhouse inside.

If that seems simple, it's not.

Now, I like really good marketing. I enjoy it. I appreciate it as a skill and an art. But I hate lying. I hate it when it's done to my face, and I hate it when it's done to nobody in particular -- i.e., to everyone -- on a website or beer label. I get annoyed when a home or office address refers to itself as a "brewery," and I get annoyed when people call themselves "brewers" who are not. Likewise, just having your office in one place does not make your hired product local to that place -- not if you hired it from another province or country. Lately these "local" village beers have been popping up in Belgium more often, and many are less than honest about their origins. Most come from the same two or three breweries.

One day soon I aim to compile a list of offenders, rather than just single out one or two. I've been told that's unfair, to name only a few liars when there are so many more. I disagree, a liar's a liar... but it's not a black-and-white issue. This deception is a symptom of a permissive culture. And we -- beer drinkers, writers, whoever -- are the ones who have permitted it. Because it's only beer, right?

We allowed the language to slip because it didn't seem to matter. Even Ratebeer refers to these beer commissioners as "contract brewers" or "client brewers," both plainly inaccurate in my view. If you are a trained, experienced brewer who sometimes hires other breweries to make your recipe, you are not a brewer in the context of that beer. Sorry.

That might sound petty. I prefer accurate. As an ongoing project I'm trying to connect the clearest meaning of those words -- "brewer" and "brewery" -- with a really simple public interest. Specialty beer is getting more attention these days, but more to the point: People just want to know from whence their food comes. Here is an idea -- radical, I know -- but why not put the place of manufacture on the label?

Here is the truth, ask a homebrewer: Any asshole can come up with a good recipe and email it to a brewery. And why shouldn't you? There is money in it, there is margin. "Craft" has market cachet. So does "Belgian" for that matter. It's a sensible business arrangement. Nobody will hold it against you -- just be honest about what you're doing. (Also, be prepared to get your ass out there and sell, or else don't be disappointed when distributors want nothing to do with it.)

Well, I shouldn't say "nobody" will hold it against you. Some real, actual brewers are pretty pissed off about the "beer firm" phenomenon. After all, they're the ones who actually crush smelly hops in their hands and scrub out mash tuns, and so on. Many of them went to school for a while or otherwise learned the hard way. I can't say I blame them. They take risks and if a beer goes bad, they're stuck paying for it. Not so for the beer commissioner -- the contract brewery would have to start over and brew it again, at no extra cost to the hirer. Did you know that? That deal sounds better all the time.

Anyway, I'm not a brewer. I'm a writer and a drinker. I want to respect the words, and I want to know where my beer was made. Somehow that is a lot to ask.

A parting thought, after this morning ramble: People are paying extra not for quality, but for variety. Because it's fun to see so many taps and bottles from so many different places. So, how much of that variety is an illusion?

22 comments:

  1. Nice. "Permissive"? Hmm. Perhaps we have such a low expectation for value in marketing messages that we've simply ceased to care that we're being lied to? Maybe we have such poor self-esteem that we don't consider it an affront when we're treated with such obvious contempt.

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  2. Contempt? I don't know, I think the reasons are more mundane. Mostly people simply don't care what the package says or doesn't say as long as the contents are good. The hedonistic argument is simple and attractive.

    I'm not sure many people gave this a lot of thought until relatively recently. If you form a company to hire and sell beer, why not call your company a "brewery"? Well, because it's not one, but nobody seemed to mind before.

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  3. Joe - Are you planning on doing this for the whole world over?

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  4. If I do it, it would just be Belgium. Even then it's hard to imagine the list being complete. Browsing 25 pages of Proefbrouwerij clients in the Ratebeer database shows you only a fraction. Scary.

    (As usual, the annoying thing is that many of those beers are pretty good.)

    The idea of such a list, in theory, would not be shaming, but transparency and the encouragement of it.

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  5. Superb piece, and stuff that shouldn't need saying.

    For my part, as best I can, I look after the who's what of Ireland here.

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  6. As usual, the annoying thing is that many of those beers are pretty good.

    Why is that annoying? If the beer is good, and good value, and remains so, then I don't see the real problem. After all, many brewery owners and not few head brewers don't spend all that much getting their hands dirty.

    (just playing a bit of Devil's advocate here)

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  7. My throwaway line. The brand confusion is irritating so it would easy to hate them, if that's all that mattered. But I can't dislike breweries like Proef or Anders. Most of the beers they put out are technically good. Excellent, even. I have no beef with the contract breweries. I even admire them as businesses.

    But of course they're good: this whole phenomenon wouldn't be possible if the contract brewers sucked at it.

    I think the two basic problems are lack of transparency and this, as I put it, illusion of variety. People walk into a bottle shop or beer fest or specialty bar and think they see a massive variety. In reality, a large percentage of those beers come from the same few breweries.

    For an article in Belgian Beer & Food magazine, I did a count on last year's Bruges Beer Festival (I haven't counted up this year's yet). Among 76 entities presenting beer, 23 were beer firms, not breweries. I checked on the labels and websites of all 23. Only 10 noted the actual place of manufacture on their labels. A somewhat overlapping 10 mentioned the actual brewery somewhere on their websites, usually buried somewhere on a history page, or as an unexplained hyperlink. The rest did not include that piece of information, allowing us to think what we will.

    That was sadly typical at the time, though winds are changing. More on that really soon. Zythos this year looks to be all breweries, no beer firms, though I don't know if that's official yet.

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    1. I wholly agree with you, I don't like the lack of transparency of some beer companies. And I've seen even worse cases here: a "brewery" that simply relabel the (very good mind you) stuff from another and sell it as their own recipes (more expensive, of course) and there's this other one that, only for the export market, even claims to come from a town that doesn't exist!

      From Spain I remember those two beers that were sold a "Asturian" through and through, but were actually brewed in Belgium, and, at least one of them was a relabeled beer.

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  8. We have too much of this in Ontario, too. Desk and smart phone "breweries" often contracting to same actual brewery leaving many diversely branded beers tasting far too samey. Brewery of origin would be a handy labelling requirement.

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  9. Labeling requirements are a touchy topic with beer companies. I know it's not easy to get all that information on there. Additional requirements in the US -- for example, on nutritional info -- would mean that many small breweries would need to buy a new labeling machine. Not cheap. I have less sympathy for the larger ones.

    And laws vary state by state. Seems to me that the single most important piece of information to put on a label -- for reasons of health, safety, and choosing our pleasure -- is ABV. Very annoying to still find bottles that don't have it. The old post-Prohibition thinking was that people would simply buy whatever was strongest, if they knew.

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  10. Great perspective, but there's one statement I keep tripping over:

    "If you are a trained, experienced brewer who sometimes hires other breweries (which is " a building with a functioning brewhouse inside") to make your recipe, you are not a brewer in the context of that beer. "

    There should be a clean distinction between "gypsy" or "cuckoo" brewers (you brew on someone else's kit) versus "contract" or "client" breweries (someone else brews for you on their own kit.)

    I agree with you on client breweries, but not on gypsy breweries.

    Brown Paper Bag Projects is one of the brews out of Proefbrouwerij you refer to in the comments. The Dublin-based head brewer travels there (and to Ramsgate in the UK and others,) sources ingredients, does all the brewing, and - crucially - lists where the beer was brewed on the label.

    Is Brown Paper Bag Project an Irish brewery? That's an ecumenical matter.
    Is Brian from BPBP a brewer? He is, if only because I wouldn't know what else to call him.

    A chef who borrows knives and pans is still a chef.

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    1. An aside, but BPBP uses ’t Hofbrouwerijke in Belgium, not Proef. And I'm not sure it does say that on any of their labels. The provenance thing is a more recent feature.

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    2. The 2nd batch of Dr. Rudi was brewed at Proefbrouwerij.
      It's not an active relationship, true; I suppose I was wrong to say "travels there" - present tense.

      And I haven't checked every label, but they have listed the host brewery as far back as Oxman.

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    3. Second batch of Dr Rudi came from Eight Degrees, same as the first.

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    4. Really? BeerI'veKnown blogged otherwise, and I remember hearing that, too...

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    5. Yep, there was a lot of confusion about it. I made everyone who voted for it in the 2013 awards vote again, but then had to return to their original ballot after Colin (I think; might have been Michael) confirmed to me that it came from Eight Degrees too.

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    6. Thank you, gentlemen, for illustrating exactly how this sort of arrangement can be confusing for anyone who cares.

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  11. A chef is a chef but she is neither a kitchen nor a restaurant. Likewise, a brewer is not a brewery.

    Also, I think there is a difference between brewers renting a kit and doing all the work (Pretty Things, Verzet, etc.) and commissioning a beer and simply being there to oversee it. But as I said: It's not simple and there and many shades of gray.

    Brown Paper Bag, though, does not sounds like an Irish brewery at all. It sounds like an Irish firm that commissions Belgian-made beer. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that.

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  12. Good post, we've got a problem with this in Norway. Several new contract breweries are purposefully blurring the lines. We actually have a problem that a customer who ordered 1 batch of beer off us is not getting the beer made in another 2 locations and left the packaging so it looks like it was made by us. It even includes our town. It was a very surreal experience seeing the bottles in the supermarket and has left our customers confused and disappointed. I think a lot more honesty is required with contract brewing now.

    Cheers,

    Andrew (the town is Voss)

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  13. As Andrew says, this is becoming something of a problem in Norway. Recently a brewery called Sagene Bryggeri started. (Sagene is a part of Oslo.) Their big marketing story, which they've repeated in several national media, is that they're a local brewery making beer with local ingredients. And the media lap it up.

    The problem is that the story is not just false, but even impossible. Sagene is in the middle of a city. Obviously, nobody grows hops or barley there. But it gets worse, because nobody has produced malts commercially in Norway since 1986. And there is no commercial hop production in Norway. As for lager yeast from Sagene there is of course no such thing.

    Plus, the beer is not brewed in Oslo at all, but at Arendal Bryggeri, which is 200 km away on the southern coast of Norway. There is no brewery at all. One local beer enthusiast was so enraged by this he took a can of Arendal Pils, stuck a post it note on it saying "Gjøvik", and posted a photo of it on Facebook, claiming to have founded Gjøvik Bryggeri.

    The beer itself is normal macro lager of no particular distinction.

    Yeah, more transparency would be nice.

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  14. It will be hard to figure out who the real gypsy/cuckoo/tenant brewers are and the fakes. It's too easy to drive to the brewery on brew day and tweet photos of yourself helping out. So honest people say they "oversee" production.

    But how's this for a for instance: right now my wife and I brew every drop of our beer ourselves in someone else's brewery. It sounds like that's okay in your book. But if we grow any more - soon I'll need to employ someone to brew as well, or if we build our own brewery I'd be doing the same. Maybe I'd rarely ever brew again if we grew or build a brewery because I'll be "overseeing" production. So, I'm not sure what it all means anyway.

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