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Mea culpa to beer drinkers


I upset a lot of beer drinkers yesterday on my blog post and for that I apologize. I guess they just didn’t see that I was having some fun at their expense. Do I really think beer drinkers are stupid while wine drinkers are smart? Of course not. Some people mistake parody for earnestness. I know that craft or artisanal beer is fantastic stuff and I occasionally crave it myself. I had an IPA from a Napa company recently that blew me away and I even told the proprietor it was as good as any wine I’d ever had. So, foamheads, put down those pitchforks and stop stalking me. You are good people.

Keep in mind that these Nielsen statistics represent scanning data from supermarkets and large superstores like Costco and Wal-Mart and so they do not capture the upscale market. Wine Market Council and Nielsen are the first ones to admit that they have little or no idea concerning trends in the above $40 wine tier, and I would guess that the small, local micro-brews also do not show up in scantrack data. So when I posited that wine drinkers are more adventurous than beer drinkers, what I meant was at the supermarket level. People who shop at supermarkets are considerably more limited in their choice of beers than their choice of wines. The beeries are more likely to grab what they had last week and last year than the wine people. I suppose there are those who always drink the same boxed wine or cheap magnum from the bottom shelf, but the real action is on the eye-level middle shelves, and it’s there that wine drinkers seem to be more adventurous, today grabbing, say, Souverain, tomorrow choosing Dancing Bull or Kenwood or Robert Mondavi, tomorrow opting for Peju or Cambria. Of course, a lot of their choice is dependent on sale prices, or the language on a shelf talker, so maybe the word “adventurous” is a little misleading. It’s not that wine drinkers have the personalities of bungee jumpers and rock climbers on excursions to Half Dome, it’s that the realities of the wine industry compel them to jump around when it comes to brands.

I don’t think there’s any real brand loyalty in wine. Maybe a little, but not the way there is in beer. If you’re a Coors guy, you’ll likely stay one. If you’re into Napa Smith Amber Ale, you probably buy it all the time. But I don’t think that people are wedded to any one particular wine brand in the popular price range. More likely, they switch around.

Wineries try to make people loyal to their brands, but that’s very difficult, almost impossible. It’s the Holy Grail of P.R. folks, but it’s really a hopeless task. Nearly 100% (96%) of core wine drinkers are not members of wine clubs, while only 82% of marginal wine drinkers are. If people were loyal to their brands, those numbers would be far lower (meaning that most drinkers would be members of wine clubs). (I’m back to using Nielsen data again.) This is because most wine drinkers “find the selection of wines where I regularly shop to be sufficient.” So we’re back to the infamous Wall of Wine, the Aisle of Angst, where shoppers make the best decision they can, cross their fingers and hope for the best.

So, beer drinkers, if I offended you, I offer my deepest regrets. But I do stand by my assertion that wine goes better with food than beer. Not with all food. I would much rather have beer with Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food than wine. Ditto for standard Mexican (burritos, tacos), although at a place like Maya, I might spring for a cocktail or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But for upscale California-style cuisine, with French or Asian influences, which is the majority of the good dining I do, it’s always going to be wine. Ditto for barbecue and grilling, which is big year-round here in Cali. Ditto for almost every appetizer I can think of, and it’s been a long time–like never–that I went anyplace where somebody served beer for a cocktail or aperitif.

I’ll say this for wine drinkers and craft beer aficienados (and it’s something a few of the commenters pointed out). We certainly have a lot in common. I have a feeling if I lived someplace in Oregon’s brewski country I’d fit right in. I never met a brewmeister I didn’t instantly like. A young, visionary beer maker is like a young, visionary winemaker: both are artist-entrepreneurs seeking to wrest beauty from the plants of the earth, their feet on the ground and their heads in the clouds, not wanting to put on a suit and tie everyday and march off to some job simply for the money. Come to think of it, that describes most wine writers too.

  1. Steve,

    Great follow-up post. I think part of the problem with yesterday’s post (that comes through a bit in today’s post) is that you appear to be trying to make broad generalization about the “other” without wanting to make broad generalizations about your own category. With wine, I see two very broad categories:

    1. The box,jug, bottom shelf consumer: It’s a long day, they just want alcohol, wine happens to be their beverage of choice and they don’t care too much what it tastes like, it just needs to be easy to drink.
    2. Everyone else: They truly enjoy the different varietals and yearn to learn more about the beverage. They will be constantly experimenting with different types.

    With beer, we also see two broad categories:
    1. The Coors, bud, MGD consumer: It’s a long day, they just want alcohol, beer happens to be their beverage of choice and they don’t care too much what it tastes like, it just needs to be easy to drink.
    2. Everyone else: They truly enjoy the different styles and yearn to learn more about the beverage. They will be constantly experimenting with different types.

    With your previous post, and some of your comments in this one, it seems like you were trying to compare the experimental wine consumer with the macro-beer consumer. Wouldn’t you be frustrated if your love of wine and discriminating taste was lumped together with the wino chugging two buck chuck down the street?

    Although as a percentage, there are probably more Coors, Bud, MGD consumers than jug wine drinkers, the “adventurous” wine and beer consumers have more in common than differences.

    At the end of the day, the consumer who reaches for Gallo box wine on a weekly basis really doesn’t have that much in common with a wine consumer with 50 bottles aging in the cellar. Likewise, a bud drinker doesn’t have much in common with someone who appreciates Pliny the Elder or a multitude of other complex beers.

    If your wine tasting ever takes you to Portland, I’d recommend visiting Laurelhurst Market ( Bon Appetit called it one of the best new restaurants of 2010 and they may just change you mind with regards to beer and food pairings.

  2. Zoomzit, come on. I poke fun at wine drinkers all the time: the snootiness, the snobbery, the superiority complex of some (especially with letter titles after their names), and especially of my fellow wine critics!

  3. Thanks for the follow-up post, Steve. Loved the comments on yesterday’s post too. Maybe it proves that “beeries” are indeed pretty exploratory- hey, we’re reading a wine blog!

    Would love you to take this a step further and tackle the subject of why there is less brand loyalty in the wine world- is it a market segmentation thing, or do wineries in general just do a poor job of marketing, or what? Since you also tend to work social media into your writing from time to time, would also love to hear your thoughts on if social media is doing anything to increase brand loyalty for wineries.

  4. Steve,

    I get you. I think one of reasons for the many comments on yesterday’s post is the difference between someone in a sub-culture poking fun of the culture they are in, and an “outsider” making the same critique. The comments strike you differently depending on where they are coming from.

    Interesting sub-point on all of this. Micro-brewers are definitely learning from the wine industry. A particularly frustrating trend is microbrews picking up on the “aspirational pricing” of some wineries and charging more for their wares and trying to make it an indicator of quality. I’ll call out Dogfish Head and Rogue as two blatant examples of this.

    I hope that beer keeps it’s “blue collar” roots because people still don’t pick beer to impress their friends, thus keeping the prices down. I’d selfishly like to hold off on inflated prices for as long as we can. So maybe it best that you envision beer drinkers as Bud guzzling football watchers in lawn chairs and team jerseys. That impression keeps more money in my wallet.

  5. Re Pottland and Laurelhurst Market–

    My wife and I spent several days in Portland last summer on our way up to Ch. Ste. Michelle to attend the Riesling Rendezvous event. Every evening in our hotel, the conceirge put on a beer tasting of several local Portland brews. This may not have been the snootiest hotel in town, but it was a Westin and thus not chopped liver either. And instead of cheap wine and cheap cheese in the evening, it put on a beer tasting of local artisal beers.

    Some were good. Some were very good. And it is not like we here in SF lack for good local brews or our retailers do not bring in good beer from all over the country. But there is nothing like what is going on in Portland. Craft brewing is big business, and it is a very different business from wine.

    We spend out lives worrying about varietal precision, adhereance to terroir expectations, high acid and low acid. We have folks who will tell us, if we care to believe them, what alcohol levels are acceptable and not acceptable. They call wines bigger than their tastes “monstrosities”. They tell us that the difference between 13.2 alcohol and 14.2 is the difference between a nirvana and a headache.

    Not so the beer lovers. They make up recipes. They use additives to improve and extend their products. They are creative, inventive, play by their own rules and are happy in it. For my money, they have a hell of lot more freedom to enjoy beermaking than winemakers have in their craft.

    I asked the woman who was leading the beer tasting what her favorite eating place was in Portland and she said Laurelhurst Market because she was more into beer than wine. We didn’t get there but it is on the list for our next visit.

  6. “Some people mistake parody for earnestness.”

    Especially those dummy-pants beer drinkers! Watch the foamheads work themselves into a lather! (Groan…)

    The numbers are interesting, no doubt, and I think you’ve done a good job analyzing them. But it wasn’t the numbers that we, or at least I, objected to.

    It’s kind of unfair to write an insulting (or fun-poking, as you say) blog post on a contentious subject without so much as a wink-wink, and then react to the dissent with “Haha, I was KIDDING you guys! Sheesh, stop taking everything so seriously!” The Wine vs. Beer feud is aggravating enough for both sides WITHOUT very craftily disguised teasing fueling the fire. (And I think Zoomzit hit the insider vs. outsider nail on the head.)

    For the record, I’m drinking wine with my French and California-fusion (and Italian, and seafood) meals, too. But BBQ? We’ll have to agree to disagree. A rack of ribs and a crisp, hoppy pale ale are sounding pretty delicious, now that you mention it…

  7. As one who spent years selling both wine and beer at the retail level (and being in charge of a 330+ label beer set in an upscale gourmet grocery store with a lot of traffic), I find that it helps to keep in mind the differentiation of market segments.

    Just as we have jug/table/box wine (JTB), we also have Bud Light/Coors/Miller Light; and these brands strive to maintain the same flavor profile year in, year out. They are like the JTB wines in that they have become commodities — if the flavors change, the customers won’t buy them.

    This segment of the market is approximately 85% of those people who buy alcohol on a regular basis (about 56% of the US population). The *other* 15% of the market is the enthusiast side of the market, and that’s where the noise comes in when it comes to adventure, new flavors, limited editions and higher prices. The aspirational side of things is part of it, as well — and that’s the case with any enthusiast market.

    How many people buy Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martin DB9s on a regular basis? If you read the major car magazines, you would think that the cover stories about $100,000++ cars showed a market in the US all out of proportion to the reality of $25,000 Fords, Chevies and Toyotas that most people buy and drive.

    There’s plenty of room in the tent for all the folks and smart marketers and sales people realize that. One of the other surprises that caught some of the folks at Scion flat-footed was the popularity of their cars with Baby Boomers — since the marketers aimed at the youth segment of the market, they were caught completely unawares when a big chunk of their customer base was shown to be 50+.

  8. Hard to generalize the wine goes better with food, given that half the world dines on Indian and Chinese cuisines. Add to that other Asian cuisines (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan), and then there’s Mexico, Central America, and South America. I have found myself drinking German beer for dinner more often in Germany than I drink German wine. And its much the same in Scandinavia and even Alsace. And, in Britain or Ireland, I just love their pub food.

    There are beer styles made for accompaning food and styles that are not. Sad to say, but many craft beers are not compatible with a wide variety of food. But there are some styles that are are just wonderful with any cuisine.

    BTW, I am milling some Belgian Pilsner malt today with a bit of Carapils and Aromatic. Boiling the wort with some fresh whole leaf Saaz hops and three months from today, the only thing you will get at my house for an aperitif is a tall,fresh, crisp Pilsner straight from the keg.

  9. Morton, I mean wine is better with the kind of food I, and most of the people I know, eat. But that makes me think: Maybe it’s just a cultural thing. I live in a culture of wine; is that why I think wine is better with food? But can we agree on one thing: both wine and beer are better with food than hard liquor.

  10. I love your piece on beer. I will always turn to wine but my husband & his friends will always go for craft-beer. They even have a tradition of sorts, “movie night” where they bring in mostly Belgium beer in tall paper bags & drink it till their fill without any food. They do it so as not to be seen by the ushers, on the sly. They see art-house & pop films. I have joined them several times & have gotten incredibly buzzed (there’s never any food. I snuck in a bar of European chocolate once which helped a little) & love their everyman beer movie night.

    Whole Foods at Columbus Circle & Fairway in NYC has a wonderful wall of beer. My personal favorite in a Belgium beer called “Westmalle”. It has a complexity of a wine but it drinks like a beer.


  11. Stella, thanks for the insight into the beer drinking practices of some people!

  12. Lisa, I’ll be more careful in the future. Did not mean to upset my beer-loving friends, of which I have many.

  13. OOOHHH. PARody. Got it. Har, har.

  14. Beer and wine can live together in harmony. I missed this post on Friday because I was at the grand opening of both the teaching winery AND brewery at UC Davis. Charlie Bamforth (Brewing Science professor at UCD) has written a book on this very topic.

  15. Sue, sure beer and wine can live together. Should live together. Must live together. There are still some crazies out there who want to go back to Prohibition.


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