Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Truth About Faux Craft

Right now “faux craft” is news. Beers fitting that loose definition have been around for a while but seem to have become more apparent as the big brewers respond to the perceived threat of true craft beer. In New Zealand faux craft has been commented on recently in both Fairfax media and the New Zealand Herald. In the US the Brewers Association have gone on the offensive, starting a campaign to expose and shame the practice with some success.

Craft Beer College’s Steph Coutts recently proposed a formal tasting of a range of New Zealand’s “faux craft” beer and this resulted in an event on Saturday January 5th at Hashigo Zake. Invitations went out to some of CBC and Hashigo Zake’s regular associates and a group of 20 enthusiasts, brewers and beer writers sacrificed the pleasures of a sunny Wellington Saturday afternoon to sit together in an underground bar.

Steph and partner Jonny Day acquired stocks from four broad categories of twelve beers that they considered were faux craft. These were served blind (i.e. without being identified), one category at a time. In each of those four categories a fourth beer was added that was undeniably “craft” to act as a kind of benchmark and perhaps to ensure that we tasters took our samples seriously, since one in each flight was almost certainly a beer we respected.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that in general we expected a few preconceptions about the quality of these beers to be confirmed. In other words, we were braced for a fair amount of mediocrity. But we were all also open to the prospect that one or more of these offerings would give us a nice surprise and stand up well alongside one of the elite craft beers – maybe even show it up.

The first round was wheat beers. Samples of “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” were left in our glasses and we set about determining what was good, bad or indifferent and tried to match them to certain named beers. For me (C) stood out as an authentic and flavourful if imperfect German-style weissbier. Another (A) had many of the same characteristics but a lot less flavour and was a bit of a disappointment. (B) had a massive apricot aroma that identified it immediately but then failed to match its aroma with flavour and ended up somewhat insipid. Finally there was (D) which showed none of the aromas and flavours that I would expect a traditional German or Belgian style wheat beer to incorporate as a result of their distinctive yeasts. It was dreadfully bland. (C) comfortably won a show of hands for favourite and was revealed to be Tuatara Hefeweizen. (A) turned out to be Crafty Beggars Wheat As, (B) was Monteiths Apricot Wheat and (D) was Boundary Road Wheat Reaper.

We moved on to pilsners. (A) and (B) struck me as quite reasonable New Zealand Pilsners with plenty of hop aroma and bitterness on show. I speculated that a slight sweet note in (A) might have betrayed a little oxidation. Others judged it more harshly. (C) stood out for lacking the fresh hop characters we all expected from a New Zealand pilsner and tasted more like a plain old golden lager. Finally (D) blew away everything that came before it with fresh, vibrant hop aromas and flavours and a complete absence of flaws. It won the voting by a landslide and was revealed to be Croucher Pilsner. (A) was Boundary Road The Resident Pilsner, (B) was Speights Triple Hop Pilsner and (C) was Crafty Beggars Good as Gold.

On to pale ales and the craft wannabes were given something of a handicap by being put up against Epic Pale Ale. The Epic was immediately recognised by everyone. But I think that even if the craft representative had been something less distinctive the three faux craft pale ales would still have suffered from the same contemptuous judgement. All three really were awful, but in their own ways. Craft Beggars Pale And Interesting was hopelessly bland. Hancocks Grand Pale Ale drew scathing criticism for being faulty (diacetyl) and generally unpleasant. And Monteiths Pacific Pale Ale, whose commercial description made it sound like a hop-bomb, started with a raw, grainy aroma and barely improved from there.

Finally we had a round of “other” beers - a couple of darks and a couple of amber or brown beers. All were easily identified so the blindness of the tasting was somewhat compromised. The “control” beer was Emerson’s Porter, and as expected it was true to style and full of flavour. Boundary Road The Resident Red Rye was for me the best of all the faux craft beers – rich and flavourful thanks to the rye, balanced and bitter. Hancocks Brown Ale drew plenty of criticism and was considered faulty by some. For me its main problem was just a lack of flavour. Finally Monteith’s Barrel Aged Porter got plenty of positive reviews although I thought it reminded me too much of Monteith’s Black to get carried away. And for all the positive comment there was a lot of speculation about how much barrel aging it really had, whether the barrel it was aged in was actually made of wood or whether the beer was left in a barrel or vice versa.

In the end the tasting’s big surprise was the lack of a surprise. Respected craft beers stood out and many of the others were exposed as bland or faulty. Boundary Road’s The Resident beers did quite well, but the awfulness of their Wheat Reaper suggested that without their imported guest brewer (Spike Bukowksi) their capabilities are limited.

Many of us assume that with the resources at their disposal the only thing the big breweries need to make beer as well as genuine craft brewers is the will. This tasting suggested otherwise.

14 comments:

  1. Good on you guys for doing it, and for doing it blind. Quality will out. That said, never give small brewers a free pass either. The worst beers I had in 2012 were all craft beers from respected brewers. Pleasingly though, so were the best. :)

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  2. Interesting article on 'faux' craft and its the first blind tasting I have seen written about since the 'Brewers Assoc' statement. I think in the US the division between the faux and real craft is blurred further as what they classify as non-craft. Great to see that craft beer was highlighted between the average beers though for the judges. I wonder though if a similar event in the US would have the same results?

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  3. I notice that in the article you have managed to get published in Stuff you mention that Mac's beers were tested yet there is no mention of this in your results here. Were they tested or has this been misrepresented?

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  4. Dear Anonymous. The story said "beer from the likes of Mac's and Monteith's...", which would have been a quote from an off-hand comment from someone (almost certainly me) to describe the intention of the tasting and was probably made before the tasting. At that time I wasn't actually aware of what the beers being tasted would be. So that's how it came about. No deception intended.

    On reflection, I think the phrase "beer from the likes of Mac's" does not actually strongly imply that a Mac's beer would be present. It just says that we'd be tasting beer from a category and Mac's is an example of that category.

    I notice that in your comment you use language such as "the article you have managed to get published in Stuff". Do I detect a little hostility in your tone? For your information the article resulted from a chance remark to a journalist that the tasting would be taking place. From that point the reporting on the event was completely the initiative of Stuff's publisher. They phoned twice to ask questions and sent a photographer to the tasting.

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  5. I think that the "Macs" has been confused with the "Craft Beggars" beers - both of which are Lion products...

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  6. Good on you for getting around to actually sitting down and doing this, I've heard plenty of people make comparisons without ever hearing about any actual taste testing. It's also good to see that the pseudocraft were clearly identified on the day.

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  7. In a recent cereal trial 100 cornflake lovers were asked to blind taste three bowls of cereal. One bowl had cornflakes in it and the other three had rice bubbles.
    The group of cornflake lovers universally chose cornflakes as their favourite cereal.

    To suggest that Lion / DB and Independant are making "faux-craft" beers to woo "real craft beer" drinkers away from micro-breweries misses the mark.

    Lovers of "Real Craft" beer are not their target market. The big boys are trying to engage the 20 something market that has moved away from beer to RTD's. To these beer drinkers (ie not your audience) the older brands are "old mens" drinks and "real craft" is just a bit too much of a leap.

    Hopefully, if they start on the Boundary Road / Macs / Montieths journey and discover there is more to beer than NZ Draught, some of them may end up making their way to NZ "real" Craft beer.

    Surely this is a good thing?

    Disclaimer: Yes I work for a big brewery, no I'm not in marketing. Though my comments may not reflect the opinions held by everyone I work with, I'm not alone.

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  8. Bradford: If they were comparing mass-market generic lagers and ales to fiercely-hopped IPAs or peated malt beers then your rice bubbles vs cornflakes remark might make sense. But the (attempted) beer styles, naming and branding all indicates that they're trying to make cornflakes. And doing it badly.

    Quite apart from the quality of the beer, there's merit in supporting independent local businesses over giant corporations.

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  9. Bradford, thanks for your comments. I've heard other people say things along the same lines - that these aren't supposed to compete with the beers we call craft and can serve as gateway beers. The trouble is that everything the corporate owners say about these brands and everything in their marketing says the opposite. I.e. they really intend to make these indistinguishable to consumers from the products of small, independent brewers.

    I would instantly lose a lot of my contempt for companies like Lion Nathan and DB if they took beers like Lion Brown and DB Draught and made versions with all malt, respectable IBUs and ale yeasts, released them as "Lion Brown Reserve" or some such thing and charged what they needed to cover the extra costs. Much more honest and much more appealing to a jaded drinker like me. But no, improving the core range is out of the question - the answer must be a new brand that muscles in on what someone else has done.

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  10. Dominic,

    Fair point, and in regards to the marketing angle I would think that enhancing an existing well known brand would be a mroe sensible way of spending one's brand budget (but then as I said I don't work in marketing) and I do understand the annoyance at the attempted stealth marketing when you could say be proud of who you are are where you came from.

    Tom, perhaps that was an extreme analogy but what I'm saying is that if you give real craft beers to craft beer drinkers then of course they are going to prefer them over gateway beers. I think a better way would be a more diverse range of people. It's easy to forget sometimes, especially when we are with our craft drinking peers, is that we're still a significant minority when it comes to total market volume. A lot of people still find craft beers very challenging.

    Guys,

    I just get a bit frustrated sometimes with the bashing that goes on, I think we can be so much more productive to the industry if we focus on the greatness that is beer, regardless of who makes it. I worry that NZ is destined to go down the same devisive path Australia has gone down with relation to craft beer. Especially in light of recent write-ups. No one wins that war.

    I think NZ micro's make some of the best craft beers in the world, and that's what we should focus on. At the end of the day, it's the consumer who is going to decide. Not journalists, not brand managers, but drinkers...no matter who makes it.

    Good to be having the discussion though.

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  11. "what I'm saying is that if you give real craft beers to craft beer drinkers then of course they are going to prefer them over gateway beers."

    So a better analogy might be giving Pam's muesli to people who are used to house-made muesli at Floriditas or Duke Carvell's?

    "I think a better way would be a more diverse range of people."

    By that do you mean including people who don't know anything about beer?

    "If we focus on the greatness that is beer, regardless of who makes it"

    Prior to the advent of craft beer, I struggled to see anything great about beer in the NZ context. There was a great lake of indistinguishable swill, marketed not on its taste but on its ability to slake your thirst after rugby, get you drunk, and bond with your maaaaaates. For anyone who cared about how somethng tasted or how it went with food, beer was a non-event. The fact that this has changed to some extent is not due to the big corporations, but to a large degree despite them.

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  12. All kiwi beers are crap. Too many for sale here in Australia. Luckily, we have so many great local genuine craft beers to select from.... no need to turn to the kooky eastern cousin rubbish.

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  13. Ignore that person just there ^^ Yes Australia has lots of awesome craft beers but there are plenty of great kiwi beers as well, and the more we can get from around the world the better.

    As far as the discussion of releasing a new beer vs releasing a limited edition of an existing beer, if a macro here released a limited version of a beer I already wouldn't drink, I'm not going to try a special version of it. I'd be more inclined to try a totally new beer.

    Keep up the good work, kiwis.

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  14. Hi Bradford

    I'm a cornflakes fan. The reason I'm ratty with the producers of rice bubbles and the reason that people are doing direct comparisons of rice bubbles with cornflakes is that the rice bubble producers are being delibrately dishonest. They are trying to pass off their ricebubbles as cornflakes. I picked up some cerial called "cornflakey buggers" the other day, right there on the box they said "finally, some cornflakes that are edibale". To my surprise the box actually contained rice bubbles. As a keen cornflakes fan I could tell I was decieved and didn't let it happen again. My toast eating friend however had heard about the recient popularity and great quality of cornflakes and was keen to give them a try to see what the fuss was about. As a cornflakes newbie he didnt feel he needed to buy the most expensive cornflakes and settled for some moderately priced ones. He was sure that he had cornflakes because it was written on the box. When he tried them he found that they were pretty much just like the ricebubbles he had ditched years ago in favor of toast, but more expensive. He's back on the toast.

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