Monday, June 18, 2007

On majorities, minorities, and "business plans": To Lite, or not to Lite?

One good aspect of media attention is that it generates questions and comments that are stimulating to the keyboard of a beer writer who, these days, seems to be doing more beer drinking than beer writing.

After the Saturday piece in the Courier-Journal, the following came to me via e-mail. I sent back my answer as written below, and did so with trepidation, because I know that the probable outcome won't be his acceptance of my invitation to come to the pub and enjoy a personally guided beer tasting meant to illustrate my points.

But maybe I'll be able to use it when writing my Beer Bars for Dummies book. The original note that came to me is in italics, with my response afterward.


While I understand your disdain for domestic megabrewery lite beers, I don't understand the commercial decision to ban them. In my group of friends, 5-6 couples, eating out and drinking beer is our primary recreation. Among those 5-6 couples, there is one spouse who will drink "good beer" and a spouse who will not (ever). My wife has tried many times, and has given up. Yours looks like an establishment we could really enjoy, but if my wife can't get her Miller Lite, we won't be there. It is a shame to let your opinions about mega brews reduce the amount of business you do. (Maybe you don't need it??) We'll just keep going to Za's and wonder about your pizza and beer selection.


With all due respect … and from my personal perspective … the real shame is that one person’s opinion about the necessity of Miller Lite reduces the range of options that a substantial majority of your recreational dining and drinking group might enjoy exercising. If I understand your scenario, there are as many as 10 to 12 people involved in the group’s collective choice to eat and drink out, and yet the preference of just one of these people can make or break the choice of destination. Does someone else eat only Armour hot dogs, thus precluding any area eatery that doesn’t serve them?

That’s doubtful, of course, because almost no one willingly eats the same food at every meal. Sadly, beer is a different story, and my career has been predicated on the alternative of “my” brand of beer: Hundreds of beers and beer styles for every meal, every mood, and every occasion. While the mass market beer business in America is based on the reinforcement of brand loyalty, my business is based on helping to provide the beer consumer with the sufficient knowledge and skills to navigate the labyrinth of multiplicity, and catering to the consumer’s increased knowledge by means of an intelligent, superior selection of beers.

In my experience, there are perhaps five people out of one hundred who, for whatever reason, are entirely and utterly resistant to the notion of embracing the notion that there might be something fairly similar to the standard preference of their comfort zone, and in such a case, I’ve found that little can be done to help them beyond having available that single branded item, whether it be Lite, or Michelin tires, or Crest toothpaste.

I’ll readily concede that another 50 or more out of that hundred would prefer their everyday brand of beer, and if it is available, they’ll stick with their safety net as a default rather than explore. However, the difference is that with these 50 drinkers, if the default isn’t available, and they’re offered an alternative somewhere within the range instead, usually they’ll be comfortable with it and enjoy the change, even if they remain brand-loyal by instinct in most other cases. In other words, they can be taught to exercise different thought processes when patronizing our establishment.

I’d guess that maybe 25 of the 100 people can come to genuinely enjoy the numerous beer alternatives, to revel in them, and to become part of the regular returning customer base.

By this tried and tested reckoning, I expect to be able to please up to 95% of the beer drinkers who walk through the door, because even if their regular brand is not available, something similar to it is – and a compromise (if not more) is readily attainable. That’s why we have Spaten Premium Lager on tap – it’s the largest selling guest beer in the house, precisely because most mainstream lager drinkers find it suitable – and also carry a mild golden ale in bottles called Reissdorf Kolsch. There usually are other choices, too, both on draft and in bottles. Our staff is good about suggesting these.

It comes down to a fundamental question: Why compromise everything that the business stands for in terms of choice and diversity just to attempt to please occupants of the five percentile, when the five percentile generally announces far in advance that it is capable of being pleased in only one way?

None of this is intended as disdainful. Rather, it’s simply an expression of the niche business principle that is the philosophical underpinning of what we try to do with beer selection. Consider that as a mass-market brewer, Miller makes Lite so as not to offend the majority of beer drinkers. Conversely, I’ve tried to construct a beer business knowing full well that this Lite-drinking majority possesses numerous outlets, while the minority of beer aficionados has correspondingly few. I’d rather have 90% of 10 frequent customers who know I cater specifically to them rather than 5% of 90 infrequent ones who can get their brand anywhere.

Rest assured that I know quite well what it feels like to go out into the world and not be able to get the beer I’d like to drink. Given that Miller Lite is served by 98% of Louisville area dining and drinking establishments, and three-fourths of these still haven’t heard the news that there’s a craft beer explosion underway, it’s almost certain that I’ve been disappointed far more often than those unable to buy Miller Lite in my pub.

Numerous times in my life as a “beer snob,” I’ve been a part of an extended group of 10-12 people, and have known from the start that the restaurant, bar or ballpark that we’d be visiting that day or night would have none of the beers I prefer. In such instances, it hasn’t made me overjoyed to be the one willing to compromise, but that’s usually what I’ve done – though not without taking the opportunity to try to educate the management. Some times I’ve had wine, other times a mixed drink, but most often I drink water or a soft drink and save the beer for later.

I’m genuinely sorry that your group can’t come to visit our pub and allow me the chance to introduce all of your friends to the many flavors and textures in the world of beer, but there are times when one must stick by his core principles, and this is one of them. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to explain them.


antzman said...

Hot dogs... ARMOUR hot dogs....

Sorry for some reason your reply to that person's email put that old commercial jingle into my head.

I think I have told you the numerous stories of people walking through my store to get their brand of beer and complain that it is all the way at the last few doors of the cooler. They ask, why do I have to walk so far to get my (insert brand here)? My retort has be a consistent "I was hoping you would pick out a better beer on the way".

sndhall said...

Us choirmembers don't mind the sermon.

biervergnugen said...

HORRAY! More room for the beer drinkers!