Sunday, February 13, 2005

Jim Koch Trilogy 2: The Far Lesser Angels of Jim Koch’s Self-Aggrandizing, World-Class Soul.

(Part 2 of 3; written in 2004)

Although Americans as a people tend to accept commercial advertising as something unavoidable - not unlike death and taxes - the genre is at best dubious.

At its worst, which is far too often, it is something worthy of hoisting the black flag in violent revolt, with heads duly rolling and the forced exile of those who have made their living from the execrable “art” of the shill.

The televised variety of incessant, inane hucksterism that has polluted our lives since the mid-point of the 20th century far exceeds the scurrilous idiocy of the sum, combined total of political propaganda spouted by history’s many totalitarian regimes.

At least America periodically declares war on the latter, but to me, a concerted series of military assaults against the legacy of Madison Avenue makes better sense, as it would result in a quantifiable improvement in the quality of my life.

Now for more words from our sponsor.

Not unexpectedly, America’s bloated megabreweries have long stood at the forefront of this shrill, vacuous genre of salesmanship in which anything except the genuine essence of the product itself becomes the prime focus of the sales pitch.

Mere irrelevance is one thing, and perhaps we’ve become immune to it, but malevolence is worse, and the same megabreweries that bombard us with bikini-clad bimbos, bumbling urban morons and talking Canadian bears manage to sprinkle a good number of attack ads into the already intolerable mix.

Most often, the megabreweries loudly clang pots and kettles while attacking each other, inventing veritable parallel universes in a frantic effort to prove which of their brands of swill tastes less like beer than the other, but they also find frequent opportunity to assail any concept that might threaten the brand-loyal complacency of their docile, clueless target audience.

Once upon a time, Anheuser-Busch went so far as to deride homebrewers and their murky, syrupy concoctions.

Meanwhile, Coors ceaselessly boasts of its “never bitter” Keystone, in the process casting the innocent hop cone as America’s public enemy number one, and portraying its watery, aluminum-clad products as public service announcements warning of the potential threat of beer flavor.

Miller High Life lobbed a recent potshot at fruit-flavored beers, including Belgian raspberry lambic, which is fascinating when one considers that SAB/Miller produces fruit-flavored “malternative” beverages by taking advantage of a loophole in federal guidelines pertaining to beer, which suggests that the company criticizing fruit beers actually brews fruit beers. Miller also wants you to believe that the Plank Road Brewery is freestanding, the check’s in the mail … well, you know the rest of the equation.

Yours is not to question why.

We’ve all come to expect this sort of fluff and thuggery from the merry crew of megabrewery imperialists that dominates the American beer business. Megabrewers actually have little choice in the matter. Consumer behavior that emphasizes knowledge and critical thought represents code-red danger, for it may lead to treasonable infidelity to the imperative of brand loyalty. A slavish devotion to brand identity is crucial to the sale of a product like mass-market beer, which resembles its purported essence so very scantily.

However, I wouldn’t expect a smaller brewer (note my intentionally not using the word “microbrewer”) to pursue the same objective. Sadly, one brewer does.

Jim Koch enthusiastically re-enlists in eternal struggle against consumer intelligence.

Some of you will remember that in the spring of 2003, I wrote about “certain obstacles to the pursuit of enlightenment.”

Among the conditions that stand firmly in the path of beer flavor appreciation are tobacco in any form, the refusal of the “bottle baby” to use a proper glass, freezing liquid temperature, and the annoying barroom custom of screaming like a banshee to friends seated fourteen inches away from the speaker’s mouth.

At the time, my ulterior motive for listing these impediments to taste and decency was to propose that television commercials then running for Boston Beer’s Sam Adams Light represented overtly hypocritical sabotage against the same good beer ideals that the company’s founder, Jim Koch, had always loudly embraced during his arduous climb to the top of the contract-brewed heap.

Never mind Koch’s seeming (?) arrogance and his tendency to paint florid pictures of his single-handed struggle against the swill market, naturally undertaken by Koch alone with a couple of like-minded partners based in the Sierra Madre mountains, battling hunger and cold, but convinced of the efficacy of the revolution … wait, that’s Fidel and Che, and a different story entirely.

But Jim wouldn’t mind at all if it were confused with his own Horatio Alger tale.

Consequently, I awarded Koch the Curmudgeon’s first-ever “Self Inflicted Oxy-MORON of the Year,” congratulating him for watering down America’s “world-class” Samuel Adams beer to meet the lower expectations of the Liteweight lobby, then compounding the outrage by dumbing down Boston Beer’s advertising to exalt the very excesses of behavioral idiocy that genuinely good beer seeks to cure.

The ad campaign in question, which featured a clueless young urbanite male screaming in ecstasy as he sipped straight from a bottle of Sam Adams Light, disappeared shortly thereafter. At least, it ceased appearing on the channels I watch, and for that I’m grateful.

It was replaced by a strange, embarrassing series of boob tube spots for regular Samuel Adams Boston Lager, each with a brief “story” line that always ends with the camera rushing to a character draped in Colonial-era costume garb who toasts the viewer in a stentorian tone of voice apparently developed during a long gig supervising the Island of Misfit Wax Museum Exhibits.

More bizarre than offensive, these at least seem to possess a low-key dignity that the Sam Adams Light spots – and, perhaps, any and all light beer flimflammery – lacks.

There Koch goes again.

A few weeks back, I saw the latest entry in the Sam Adams Boston Lager canon of television advertisement.

In it, three oblivious but breathtakingly airbrushed males stroll into a “beers of the world” type of pub. Odd, humorless music is heard playing. The sultry female bartender hands the trio a thick, musty, leather-bound volume and informs them in a sexy Euro-accent that the bar’s beers from 150 countries are described therein.

She starts to walk away, but our heroes already know what they want: Sam Adams Boston Lager … and you “won’t find a better beer if you travel the world over,” as we’re informed by our familiar guide, the Colonial Waxworks Statue, who suddenly appears and hoists a stein in the viewer’s direction as the ad comes to a merciful end.

As the late, unlamented Gussie Busch - currently rotting in swillmeister’s hell - is my witness, right up until the hip young dudes ordered three Samuel Adams Boston Lagers, I swear I thought the commercial was going to be for Miller, Bud or Coors, or maybe all three in tandem.

Alas, it wasn’t, so hear ye, hear ye! Jim Koch has been added to the list of people who’ll not only be refused service in Rich O’s, but who’ll not make it through the doorway to ask for it.

If it were a matter of comparing Samuel Adams to the wide variety of watery and tasteless Euro-lagers that flood the market … if it were a paean to the superiority of Sam Adams compared with insipid and tasteless mainstream American lagers … if it were the suggestion that sometimes it’s good to think, to try something different, to take a chance for Christ’s sake, to pour the swill down the toilet where it belongs and roll the dice for once … then I would feel good about the ad.

But it’s none of these. Put simply, the Samuel Adams ad exalts the very same plain, lazy, willful stupidity that is the default human condition I vociferously oppose each and every working day of my life.

Exactly how does one compare lager with stout, or Trappist ale?

The world of beers offered at a good beer bar include dozens of beer styles that are not comparable to a golden-hued lager, and that’s precisely the reason for the good beer bar’s existence, in addition to being at least part of the motivation for beer drinkers to move up the ladder – from Bud to Sam Adams Boston Lager, and then wherever the palate desires, which might even include the other styles of beer that Koch’s company brews and markets, including Oktoberfest, Stout and Wheat.

But Koch’s current advertisement urges an unthinking brand loyalty that is directly analogous to the refusal of 9/10ths of American beer drinkers to try anything other than “their beer,” and which of course remains the major barrier to them trying Koch’s own “world class” lager.

The ad perpetuates the myth that good beer is somehow inaccessible and mysterious, completely beyond the understanding of the confused, disoriented beer drinker. If this really were the case, then there would be no surviving good beer bars to encourage the upward and outward journey afforded the beer drinker who’ll give good beer a chance.

While a case certainly can be made that the mood and ambience in some good beer bars are ripe for satire, Koch’s current ad misses the target by lampooning the adventurous and expansive impulse that leads beer drinkers to his beers in the first place.

Go to the mirror, boy.

This makes twice in a year that Jim Koch has blown it, and perhaps a pattern is discernable. Let it be known: I have consistently supported his company’s mission over the past decade, pointed to how it’s nice to have a beer like Sam Adams at places where otherwise there would be no good beer to drink, and lauded the seasonal Sam Adams beers because they’re good for timid beer drinkers to cut teeth.

So, what’s Jim Koch do in exchange for my advocacy? He dumps all over it, not once, but twice. The first time was his encouragement of moronic consumer behavior, and that one resulted in my decision not to carry his Sam Adams Light brand – in fairness, not that I would have, anyway.

This second outrage means that I’ll no longer carry any of Boston Beer’s seasonal drafts, although I’ll not let my annoyance dictate a loss of the only genuinely noteworthy bottle beer that he makes available on a regular basis, Triple Bock, which although an idiotic, bastardized term, remains a fine and unique beer.

The third time’s a charm for me. Jim, one more strike and your beers are out. One more strike, and you have made an enemy. Put down the stock listings for just a moment. Pour yourself an ice-cold, world-class Samuel Adams Boston Lager – better yet, just drink it from the bottle. Look in the first available mirror:

Is there any trace remaining of the idealist looking back at you, or just a piece of shiny silver?

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