Monday, April 5, 2010

Big Beer In Review

The past few weeks I've been drinking "big beer" - Imperialized versions of India Pale Ales, Dopplebocks and Stouts:

Sprecher Russian Imperial
Capital Imperial Doppelbock
Pearl Street Dankenstein
Capital US Pale v.2.0
Ale Asylum Satisfaction Jacksin

And, what have I learned? Good question. I've learned that "Imperial" basically means whatever you want it to mean. I've also learned that these are really good beers, but you can't sustain a brewery on them. Of course, Stone, Surly, Dogfish Head, and Three Floyds would probably disagree. But, I would argue, these breweries are the exception, not the rule.

Even in today's American craft brewing scene a brewery simply cannot sustain itself on these kinds of beers. As we have seen, a brewery can make a reputation on these beers. I think Founders, even Central Waters and Tyranena, and to some extent Pearl Street, have certainly put their hats in the "big beer" ring. But, none of these breweries, and you can include Stone, Surly, et al, in this, make the majority of their money on any one of these big beers.

The key to "big beer" brewing, then, is diversity. You can't just make a badass Russian Imperial Stout. You have to make a badass Russian Imperial Stout, Double IPA, Imperial Belgian Blonde, Imperial Pilsner, Imperial Old Ale, Imperial Porter, and on, and on, and on. Breweries that make a living on "big" beer have, literally, dozens of brands. It's why if you look at the numbers, you'll see that over the past 10 years the percentage of brands with an ABV over 5.5% has risen from barely 40%, to well over 70%. A brewery is never going to sell 50K barrels every year of a 12% Russian Imperial Stout. So, a brewery needs to release 10 brands that it can sell 5K barrels of. That's fine, if your brewery can sustain that kind of pace. But if the brewery stumbles even once, it can kill any momentum that a dozen brands have built up.

As a consumer, it can be hard to keep up at all.

So, the reality is that most breweries can make a reputation on these big beers but will need to look elsewhere to make money. And, frankly, I think this is where Wisconsin breweries have a natural edge.


  1. On Friday I left the cozy creature comforts of Madison and wondered down to New Glarus. We went to one bar and one restaurant/bar and got a band. At the show, it was just amazing the amount of bud light and miller lite that was going across the bar. The place is called Flannery's and they have 6 New Glarus on tap. A small minority was drinking some tap beer. I'm used to the Malt House and Alchemy. One forgets out in the real world, 90% or more beer sucked down is the Bud, Millers and Coors. Even in quant New Glarus home of the spotted cow, the domestic big brands still rule the day...

  2. As it happens, I was at Flannery's on Friday night as well.
    It is an old-school supper-club and has the old-school supper-club regulars drinking cheap beer and mixed drinks and smoking heavily, just as it has been for decades. There was even some schmuck puffing on a big cigar. Just the thing to whet your appetite for food. The NG beers on tap are the usual cow and the calves (fat squirrel, etc), with the only modestly interesting NG beer on tap being Cabin Fever Honey Bock.

    But the fish was good and the roesti is the best in town....

  3. I think you're looking at those numbers slightly wrong. The statistics were of NEW brands coming out that are over 5.5 abv. This is not a reflection of sales, or of all beer brands, simply newly introduced brands. Looked at this way, it really seems like just a reflection of the craft beer movement in general. I'd also argue that most craft beer is over 5.5 abv, including many sessionalbe beers like Dortmunder export (which can be up to 6%), American Pale Ale (up to 6.2) and American Brown ale (up to 6.2 also).
    That being said, I agree very few people are going to make a go of it selling only Imperialized beers, but I don't think they should run to light lager.

  4. Let's be thankful for the variety. "Big" brews are expensive to produce, thus more expensive to consume. In addition, because the higher ABV brews require a more tempered consumption (meaning enjoying one, perhaps two, before you forget what you're supposed to be enjoying), sales will not be as high as more session-oriented beers (which, as our fine MBR host has acknowledged more than once!), which may undestandably allow drinking of several in one session. As beer fans on a site such as this, we often lose sight that we are still a minority as far as appreciating all the nuances of so many beer styles available to us; we're preaching to the choir! Seek out new brews, new brewers, etc. "Educate" the non-believers. Let your meal, the weather, your mood guide you to a tasty brew. Enjoy what we have--there's so much now compared to the "wasteland" of a decade ago! For those in the Madison area, you are so fortunate. Even "up north" there are great brewers and pubs (Titletown in GB; RedEye, Bull Falls, the Dane in Wausau; Thirsty Pagan in Superior; Minocqua Brewing, etc.). Here's to big beers, small beers, and those who crank 'em out!


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