Monday, January 23, 2006

Differentiation: Which -- and how -- do you choose?

A day in the life …

I’m handed a bottle of beer called Thirsty Dog Hoppus Maximus, and the representative of the same wholesale distributorship that recently went a month without having draft Sierra Nevada Pale Ale mispronounces the name before pushing forward the same company’s Old Leghumper and giggling at the image of leggy broads with – what else – a dog.

Ominous, indeed.

Hoppus Maximus bears an alarmingly cheesy label of a Roman legionnaire wannabe with – what else – dogs, set against a backdrop of a Great American Beer Festival medal, and for good reason. HM has medalled four times since 2001.

The beer pours clear and clean, great lace … and a tinge of orange, perhaps the tiniest hint of amber, in the color. It smells like an American Pale Ale, tastes like an American Pale Ale, and is referred to as Pale Ale on the beer rating sites.

So much for unanimity, because all of its medals have come in the GABF’s Amber/Red category. Go figure … and if the answer comes to you, let me know.

It is a clean beer. Bittering hops are largely absent, but there’s plenty of piney citrus in the finishing hops. The body is very light, almost to the point of non-existent. The alcohol content is 5%. In every respect, HM is so technically adept that it might have been an Anheuser-Busch mockrobrew.

For the record, the Thirsty Dog line of beers originated in Ohio, and is contract brewed at Frederick Brewing Company (Maryland).

Conclusions? Perhaps a rant, first.

As both publican and as beer drinker in private life, my taste buds operate under a principle of differentiation.

What about this beer is different? How does it differ from others in the style category? Is it sufficiently special to merit extra effort to find it, or is it the sort of beer you’d be perfectly happy to drink at the brewery’s taproom or pub, but wouldn’t seek it out otherwise?

Labels, graphics and extraneous enticements are not sufficient to achieve differentiation, at least for me, and the consumption context isn’t, either.

The cream of the microbrewed crop combine marketing, art and product originality (think Stone, Three Floyds and the like), and the beer’s still good even after you’ve poured it into a glass and tossed the bottle in the recycling bin.

As for consumption context, I mean that the beer’s still good even if you’re not drinking it in the company of a hot date, at the brewery tap or while watching your team win a playoff game. So often we mistakenly associate beer quality with other enjoyable external factors.

I understand that I’m swimming against the tide. Graphics move products off crowded store shelves, and clever ad campaigns showing a sunny beach and a bottle of insipid Corona do, too. However, that’s what curmudgeons do. We're contrarian.

It's in our blood.

Granted, there is a cool zone of hostility in my heart for breweries that come up with great names, and proceed to wrap them around ordinary beers, and quite frankly, it’s hard to be objective when there’s nothing Hoppus Maximus about Thirsty Frederick Dog’s beer other than GABF medals for the Zelig of microbrewed style categories.

Call me funny, but shouldn’t amber and red ales be (a) amber and red, and (b) have definable malt character?

Apart from all that, Hoppus Maximus is technically flawless ale set squarely in the middle of the road. Calibrate price points, and make your decisions accordingly.

And Old Leghumper?

Promises less, achieves more; center of the style target, deep brown cousin of stout, perhaps a bit more to the malty sweet side than I prefer, but certainly in the range of microbrewed porters everywhere … and, alas, providing the keeper of the beer list with no real flag of differentiation, and consequently no recommendation to stock it.

Neither of these samples are bad beers. Not at all.

But sometimes it’s worth remembering that the little imperfections are what make beers memorable.

1 comment:

edward parish said...

Bought a sixer of Old Leghumper over the weekend at Bridge. It is okay, but not in the same league as Bell's, NABC, BBC,AV and others but nonetheless a tasty brew.