Monday, December 6, 2010

Big Bay Beer On a Mother F-ing Boat

For the record, Shorewood is a Near-North Side suburb of Milwaukee.

Big Bay Brewing Company is the newest craft brewery to hit the market. With a retail shop in Shorewood, Wisconsin, the beer itself is brewed at Milwaukee Brewing Company under an alternating proprietorship model.

I haven't had their beer, but you'll have to forgive me for being skeptical. I received the press release on Thursday and it reads like a marketing person trying entirely too hard to convince me that this is something unique.

Big Bay is owned by 10-year veteran of Miller Brewing and MillerCoors' "Product Innovation" Division, Jeff Garwood, striking out on his own with some recipes purchased from a brewery consultant.

A quick aside before I go on. Keep in mind that it is entirely possible that Mr. Garwood's endeavor is driven by a love for craft beer; he's worked over a decade in the industry, after all. But, I am a cynic by nature, so you'll have to forgive my cynicism. I did not interview Mr. Garwood and I suspect that even if I had, he would not have opened up to this line of questioning. With that said ...

The marketing copy smacks of the kind of industry speak that can be a real turn-off: "An important element of Big Bay Brewing is the brand’s ties to the water." Really? The brand is 2 days old (the first beer was released on 12/1 and I write this on 12/3). And already the brand is tied to the water? How the heck does that happen? The lakes are already starting to freeze.

Rarely does this sort of overt narrative succeed. Why? Well, consumers are smarter than brewery executives usually give them credit for being. The brand only becomes "tied to the water" when the consumer says it's tied to the water. If the brewery wants to push that narrative it needs to act in conformance with the narrative, not just talk about the connection.

And six-packs of 12-ounce bottles do not exactly walk the narrative of "take us out on the water."

Randomly walk into any of the 7 million boats or ice-fishing huts on any lake in the State of Wisconsin. What percentage of the beer do you think is in bottles? If I were to guess, because I have no idea other than my own experiences, I'd venture to say that it is less than 15%. Bottles are made of glass. Glass and water do not mix very well.

People take Leinie's camping because they can get it in cans and it's sold at bait shops all through the Northwoods. Capital is successful on golf courses because it is in cans and its primary demographic is affluent suburban men. Oskar Blues is hip with the back-country folk because it is in cans and hoppy as hell. These connections work because the brewery follows-through on the connection. Consumers believe them because they are honest. New Belgium actually cares about the environment. Dogfish Head actually cares about creativity. Stone actually cares about collaboration.

This Macro-Industry push attitude rarely works in the craft beer industry. Anheuser-Busch and Miller have the marketing might to make true what follows from the advertising. Thus, if Miller runs commercials that show beautiful girls swarming on guys drinking Miller Lite, it can hire beautiful women to go to a bar and hand out free beer for a week. Advertising becomes reality.

Consider Mr. Garwood's own words when describing his position at Big Bay:
Marketing leadership with strong background in packaging and product
innovation. Passion for identifying the white space and taking nebulus ideas and
refining them as they move through the development process. Career goal is to
bring value and values to CPG companies with marketing innovation and brand
development using my acumen, creativity, and relationships.
Not passion for beer. Not passion for brewing. Not even passion for boating. A passion for "identifying the white space and taking nebulus ideas ... through the development process." There's nothing like brewery owners that refer to their own company in marketing speak (if you were wondering, "CPG Company" is a "Consumer Packaged Goods" company). Indeed, for specific examples of the kind of product innovation Mr. Garwood has in mind, one need only consider the "innovative" Miller vortex bottle (Mr. Garwood's "Innovation" Division at MillerCoors was directly responsible for that one. You're welcome.).

"Big Bay beers are developed from unique and custom recipes that are steeped in the brewing traditions and simple ingredients of years gone by." That's why the first two beers are a kolsch and an amber. Very unique recipes. Leinie's alone makes 7 amber beers (including "ambers", "reds", "vienna", etc. which often have caramel/vienna/munich malt, etc.). Capital makes 5. Lakefront makes 6.

If Mr. Garwood wanted to "tie" his beer to the water, perhaps his first beers should have been a pilsner (a style known for its soft water quality) and a Burton Ale (a style known for its particularly hard water quality). Perhaps the press release would have had marketing copy extolling the importance of water in brewing, the importance of water conservation, the importance of boating organizations in the preservation of water quality around the world, and, maybe, even a brief blurb about Mr. Garwood's love for boats.

As for the beer itself, I'm sure brewery consultant, Jim "The Beer Doctor" Lueders is very good at his job. For example, in just 2010 he's been winning medals for the recipes he provided to Morgan Street Brewery in St Louis and he is opening his own brand-new project, a zero-emissions brewery in Stevensville, MT just outside of Missoula.
Again, I haven't had the beer, I'm sure it's fine. I'm only writing from what I see in a press release and what some simple research can turn up. But I have to ask, does Wisconsin really need another Kolsch and Amber? Even if they're on a Mother F-ing Boat?


  1. I've tried them. Well made - the Kolsch was surprisingly well made. The's an amber. The water tie-in is to boating (on the water not really the water itself) and the packaging is clean and basic. I'd rather drink Milwaukee Ale house beers (and they come in cans).

  2. I tried the Kolsch on a whim after seeing the two Big Bay offerings in the coolers at the liquor store. It is well made indeed. I quite enjoyed it, in fact it made quite an impression on me. As long as the quality and availability stay the same I can easily seeing this become my at-home session beer of the winter.

    It does sound like the marketing guys went a bit overboard, to keep the whole nautical theme going, but isn't that what marketing dudes do? Maybe it is a bit unpalatable having a slick suit running the operation as opposed to a scrub-the-tank-yourself guy one step up from home brewing, but it takes all kinds. Can you really say that that this guy doesn't have a passion for brewing just because he's demonstrating a penchant for MBA-speak? I didn't know one thing about Big Bay when I tried the Kolsch. All that really matters to me in the end is that I thought it one of the better Kolsch beers I've had.

  3. I haven't tried the beer but I'll bet it's ok being that it's brewed by a noted brewery. I was contacted by a sales/marketing person who wanted to BUY some of my hop candy to see if they could sell it in their gift shop or whatever they call it. I was skeptical from the start as I sell wholesale 'by the pound' and the individual ordered .5 pounds of Cascade and .5 pounds of East Kent Golding, the equivalent of ONE POUND, hahaha! Still haven't gotten paid. Luckily it was only one pound. I'm still kinda skeptical. By the way, it's 'B-Hoppy' the ORIGINAL Hop Candy if anyone's interested. Hoppy Trails!!


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