Monday, March 30, 2009

A Pet Peeve

Come see our huge tap selection!!!!! Oh Yeah? The five Bud taps, the Four Leinie's taps, Becks, Heineken, Harp, Blue Moon, Guinness, Three Miller Taps and the obligatory Bells? Labatt's AND Molson? Great. Fan-f-ing-tastic. You have 21 beers on tap. Great. 20 tasteless, functionally identical beers made by faceless corporate marketeers with an army of distributrons that loyally do your bidding based on whichever beer is receiving the heavy marketing push this week.

And Bells.

What's with that? Why is Bells always the obligatory throw to craft beer? Yeah, there's almost always Spotted Cow, but that's hardly a comfort. It's like pointing out that Capital Amber is on tap. It's OK, but surely we can do better. And Bells. Why, if you are going to give a tap line to a craft, would you give your one tap to Bells? Look, I have no problem with Bells. Really. But we have a gazillion breweries from Wisconsin that would be far better: Central Waters, Tyranena, Lakefront, Furthermore, etc etc etc. All of which are distributed by the same distributors that are already controlling the tap lines.

And, there is the problem. It's not the bar that even controls the taps; it's the distributors. The distributors provide tap handles, line cleaning services, and other pseudo-freebies and in return the bar lets the distributor decide what goes on tap. Thus, we end up with tap lines that are identical; we end up with what the distributor wants you to drink. We end up with whatever the nameless, faceless, marketeers who have significant stakes in the distributors want us to have. With this power, the distributors are uniquely positioned to really make a difference and push quality beer. Yet, oddly, they choose not to. I've spoken to many distributors - they aren't bad people, many of them are extremely knowledgeable and they love good, craft beer. So, why don't they put it on tap when the ability to do so?

And when they do throw a bone, why Bells? Why not Stone? Or Great Lakes? Or Goose Island? Or Summit? Or any number of other large-ish, regional, popular breweries? For some reason it's always Bells. Anyone care to guess why?

By the way. Has anyone else noticed that all of the sudden Leinie's is everywhere? It seems like Miller is ramping it up something fierce. I suspect that Miller is even pulling their own Miller brands (e.g., MGD, Miller Lite, 64, etc.) for Leinie's brands. I'll leave alone for now some things that were actually spoken by a Leinie's rep, because I want to talk about them much, much more in the near future. (I'll give you a hint: 1) "There's no such thing as bad beer"; 2) "If you think about isn't every beer a 'craft' beer"?) But has anyone else notice the new flood of Leinie's brands? Or is it just me?


  1. First of all, while Blue Moon is hardly an extremely flavorful beer, and is owned by Miller Coors, I would still call it a fair representation of a Belgian Wit Beer and call it a craft beer. Do I order it often? No, but I would still say it's craft.
    You're right to point out Spotted Cow as well.
    I guess I hadn't noticed that EVERY bar has Bells on tap at the exclusion of other crafts; maybe I only go to good bars. Perhaps it is a combination of supply and demand coupled with relative location? As far a big craft brewers, lets say the top 25 by brewing volume in the nation, that are relatively close to Madison, Bells and New Glarus are it. As a distributor you do have some bar owners requesting specific craft beer, some of which is hard to keep a stock of. Lake Louie, for example, has a waiting list to get a tap handle of. If you are a distributor and you are in control of the tap list, you go with all the big boys who pay your kids college tuition, then you have to have one or two tappers of craft beer in case some jerk like you or I comes in, so you put on something you know you can get a consistent supply of and is relatively local. Ideally it could also be something a non craft person would drink if they were feeling fancy. Thus Spotted Cow and Bells.
    Just a thought. Doesn't fully explain why it's always Bells, if that's the case as you say. And I agree, I think Miller is trying to position Leinies as a national craft brand to try and get some of that market, ala Michelob.

  2. My buddy in NYC discovered Leinie's Sunset Wheat and now raves about it. Considering it is oddly difficult to find decent beer in Manhattan (especially from stores), I guess it is step up from the swill he used to drink. And he actually seems a bit excited about trying other beers now. Will Leinie's wider distribution encourage more beer drinkers to start trying other craft brews and backfire on Miller? Interesting thought.

  3. Phil, that's a great point - Leinie's as a "gateway" brand. And it's really something that I want to explore in much, much more detail. I find it curious that I have developed this aversion to Leinie's that I'm not really sure is entirely justified. They make good enough beer (the 1888 and Nut Brown excepted) and people who are "discovering" Leinie's are far more likely to continue to seek out high(er) quality beer. So, really, Leinie's is a good thing.


    But I can't help getting irritated with their flooding the market with brands targeted at market segments and thinking that this somehow makes them a "craft" brewer. Don't we have to have some sort of standard? And does Leinie's really fit what we think a craft brewery is? Does Sam Adams? And if one does, but the other doesn't, how do we definitionally distinguish between the two?

  4. An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional.

    Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

    Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

    Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

    Microbrewery: A brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels (17,600 hectoliters) of beer per year. Microbreweries sell to the public by one or more of the following methods: the traditional three-tier system (brewer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer); the two-tier system (brewer acting as wholesaler to retailer to consumer); and, directly to the consumer through carryouts and/or on-site tap-room or restaurant sales.

    Brewpub: A restaurant-brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on site. The beer is brewed primarily for sale in the restaurant and bar. The beer is often dispensed directly from the brewery's storage tanks. Where allowed by law, brewpubs often sell beer "to go" and /or distribute to off site accounts. Note: BA re-categorizes a company as a microbrewery if its off-site (distributed) beer sales exceed 75 percent.

    Contract Brewing Company: A business that hires another brewery to produce its beer. It can also be a brewery that hires another brewery to produce additional beer. The contract brewing company handles marketing, sales, and distribution of its beer, while generally leaving the brewing and packaging to its producer-brewery (which, confusingly, is also sometimes referred to as a contract brewery).

    Regional Craft Brewery: An independent brewery with an annual beer production of between 15,000 and 2,000,000 barrels who has either an all malt flagship or has at least 50% of it's volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

    * Source:

  5. Anon,

    Thanks for the cut-and-paste job, but for any number of reasons I'm not entirely sure that the Brewer's Association's definitions are entirely useful in providing any definitive guidance.

    For example:
    - why 2 million? Is a brewery that makes 2.1 million barrels any less of a craft brewery than one that makes 1.9m barrels? Do we really need to put a number on it at all?
    - independent: is a craft brewery that happens to be purchased by a major really any less of a craft brewery?
    - traditional: don't even get me started on traditional non-all-malt beers. besides - what do you do about New Glarus, who's "flagship", Spotted Cow, is not an all-malt beer (significant portions of flaked maize in the grain bill?); and, really, "uses adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten"? Who the hell determines THAT?

    So, for any number of reasons, I'm not entirely sure that the Brewer's Association (or BeerAdvocate's for that matter) really answers the question.

  6. I'm glad you're not kneeling in the enormous line of people behind Larry Bell's ass cheeks. If craft beer was indie rock of the early 2000s, Bell's would be The Killers. John Mallet (the production manager at Bell's) has done a lot of great things for craft brewers, but I've never understood why Bell's was able to gather such a massive cult following.

    The Brewers Association's definition of 'craft brewery' helps them compile statistics, but I think it's total crap outside of that context.

  7. I'm not from Wisconsin though I am planning on moving to Madison soon. So I can't say anything about Bell's (never seen it before) but, I have noticed Leinies a lot more lately in both NC and CO. I first noticed it while volunteering at the Charlotte Oktoberfest when I ended up behind the taps serving Leinies. I thought it was a tasty beer, not outstanding, but since then I have noticed my less-beer-snob-like friends drinking Leinies with enthusiasm. Much like Phil, I'm all for it as long as it wins people over to the good stuff eventually.

    Thanks for the great blog, I look forward to reading more as I get to know Madison.


  8. As Matt pointed out first, supply issues are crucial to bars in tap selection. Bells is pretty damn reliable when it comes to supply.

    And Bells is really well known. I'd wager a little bit more than Goose Island, definitely more than Summit or Great Lakes. As great as Stone is, their audience is almost solely beer geeks. And beer geeks are still the vast minority. Nearly every one of my non beer geek friends (which would be about all my friends) know of and get excited for Oberon.

    Then there's money. It's quite possible that Bells offers incentives to the salespeople to get placement on tap. Even something small like $1-2 per tap adds up over 40 accounts and re-orders of kegs.

  9. How do you know Stone's audience is almost solely beer geeks?

    Their products are on the shelf right next to Bud in some stores.


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