More on Innovation

When I wrote my semi-tongue-in-cheek “In Defence of Innovation” earlier this week, I had no idea the kind of reaction I was about to kick off. Hits climbed, the comments count soared, Stan weighed in, and, of course, everything deviated well off-topic.

All of which prompted me to wake up this morning thinking that I needed to offer some clarification. This is it.

In general, I think talk of innovation in brewing needs be separated into three categories: real innovation, contextual innovation and “innovation.” First, the real deal.

I believe there is still plenty of truly innovative brewing going on out there, just not nearly as much as people seem to think. Theo Musso of Baladin intentionally oxidizing his Xyauyù is, I think, an innovative move. (Sure the result is far from a quaffing beer, but so what? It’s delicious.) Van Roy père et fils creating the lambic-style Iris with 100% malted grain is, I think, innovative. (Jean-Pierre won’t call Iris a true lambic because it lacks unmalted wheat, so neither will I.) Sam Calagione building a maturation vessel of Brazilian hardwood for Palo Santo Maron is, I think, a pretty bold and innovative move. (Not the wood-aging per se, of course, but the aging in that particular wood.) And the year-and-a-half méthode champenoise treatment of DeuS by Brouwerij Bosteels is, again, something I think is pretty innovative. (Some would award that particular innovation to Malheur, but since I have never yet been served an uncloudy glass of that brewery’s Brut, I have to question the dégorgement part of the practice.)

To say there is no space still left for innovation is like saying that there is nothing new remaining in art. So long as there is imagination, there will be innovative advances and new works of original art. It may not all be to your taste of mine, but it will be there.

Contextual innovation, I believe, is just as legitimate because it advances a particular market. The rise of the co-called Belgian IPA, for example, is a definite innovation when taken within the context of that country, and since I can claim on only a handful of visits to have supped several ales of that style within the Belgian borders, I can say with a certain amount of conviction that its small-scale popularization has broadened the selection of beers available there. Ditto the blonde best bitter in the U.K., and even the chestnut beer in Italy.

Finally, we have “innovation,” which is my way of pointing to those beers that are often classed as such, but are not in reality terribly innovative. Is the aging of beer in whiskey barrels innovative? Not since Goose Island first did it with their Bourbon County Stout. Blending beers à la Firestone Walker Anniversary series? Hardly, although the argument could be made that it is a contextual innovation, as the practice was and remains rare in the United States. The recreation of historic or obscure styles? By simple definition, no.

This does not, however, suggest in any way, shape or form that the beers created through the practices listed above, or any of the myriad other similarly non-innovative practices, are somehow inferior to truly innovative beers, or even traditionally styled beers, for that matter. Some of them I have found to be quite excellent, and if being tagged with the term “innovation” helps their brewers sell a few more cases, or command a dollar more per bottle, well, I’m okay with that.

In Defence of Innovation

Alan and Ron (and, to a lesser degree, Martyn) have of late taken to calling out innovation in brewing as simply another way to separate the punters from their money. Which is their prerogative, but excuse me if I decide to chime in, too.

I am fond of innovative beers. One I like took pale malt and fragrant hops, brewed them up with soft water and fermented the results with a bottom-fermenting yeast. It’s called Pilsner Urquell these days, and in 1842 its innovation was nothing less than the commencement of what is today the world’s most popular, and most bastardized, style of beer.

Another pair of brews arrived on the scene within a few years of each other, showcasing a particular variety of American hop, called Cascade, and starting not just a beer style, but a whole movement in brewing. Yes, Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale were pretty innovative in their day.

Hell, you could even say that in their respective day, all three of the above beers were, dare I say, “extreme”!

Maybe I’m Just a Bit Thick, But…

A proposed rise in beer tax in Wisconsin has me scratching my head. Now, I understand that nobody likes new taxes, and no beer drinker wants to pay more for the beers they enjoy, but the math on this one has me confused.

Here’s the deal: the state is proposing the first rise to their beer tax in some 40 years, bringing it from $2 to $10 per 31 gallon barrel. This works out to about 2.4 cents per bottle, which certainly doesn’t sound like much to me, but here’s where it gets confusing. Brewing industry representatives are saying that by the time the increase reaches consumers, that 2 cents per bottle will have turned into 12 cents, “as the product is passed through distributors and retailers.”

I don’t get it. If there is a rise in tax of under 2 ½ cents per barrel, that seems to me as simple as a rejigging of price, so a six-pack, say, will cost distributors 15 cents more. There is no added cost to the distributor other than this 15 cents, so why should that same six-pack cost retailers anything more than 15 cents extra? And since there is likewise no extra expense for retailers, other than that 15 cents, why should it cost Wisconsonites (Wisconsonians?) anything more than and extra 15 cents per six?

If the industry is saying that the tax increase will lead to a 72 cent increase in the price of a six-pack, aren’t they really just saying that retailers and distributors will take advantage of the tax increase in order to take a cash grab of more than half a buck per six? And isn’t that a problem with their distribution system, rather than with the tax itself?

And why don’t we hear similar stories when the breweries decide to uniformly raise their prices, as they sometimes do? Nope, then, for some reason, we only ever hear about the “small increase” they’re making in order to cover rising costs.

More Expensive Beer — The Other Story

It has come to my attention recently that mainstream beer in the United States has been getting more expensive of late. Part of the cash grab can be attributed to increased commodity costs, no doubt, but as MSN reporter Michael Brush notes, there’s more to the bump in the cost of a case of Bud, MGD and Coors Light than just the price of barley malt and hops.

And what’s the extra dough paying for? Profit growth and pricier commodities used to make beer, the brewers say.

Oh, and at least one other thing: more-expensive executives, whose pay in many cases has nearly doubled over the last year.

Read the whole story here.

A Question of Value (Again)

Greg raised a hoary old topic on his “Beer, Beats & Bites” blog last evening, and it took no time at all for our favourite beer curmudgeon, Alan, to chime in with his thoughts. (Our second favourite beer crank – that would be yours truly – took a little longer to add his thoughts.) And now, for perhaps the last time, although in all likelihood not, I’d like to address the issue of value in beer.

Greg says that he spent $25 for a 375 mL bottle of Cantillon Zwanze at beerbistro, and while he thinks he received full value for his dollars, wonders what others think. He also notes that he believes the amount to be the most he’s ever spent on a beer.

As someone who has both tastes Zwanze and spent considerably more on beer, I concur with Greg that he did get his money’s worth. Moreover, I’d suggest there are innumerable things we spend money on daily that both cost as much or more and furnish less pleasure, to wit:

  • I regularly spend over $50 to get a taxi to the airport, more than double what Greg spent on his beer. I ordinarily do this to squeeze a few minutes more sleep out of my morning, but do I derive any particular enjoyment from it? No.
  • Last weekend, before a Toronto FC match, my wife and I dropped $56.89 (after tax but before tip) for a mediocre-bordering-on-bad snack and a couple of most ordinary drinks. That could easily have been a much more enjoyable street vendor sausage and a bottle of Zwanze each.
  • Our half-bottle of Möet enjoyed at the end of the night in our hotel room in Montréal cost $45. It was right for the time, but the exact same quantity as was contained in the Zwanze bottle Greg purchased at a bit more than half the price.
  • Also in Montréal, four very mediocre drinks at the bar of Restaurant S cost us in excess of $50. (I know, why didn’t we leave after the first mediocre drink? I have only myself and the principle that a body at rest tends to remain at rest to blame.)
  • In downtown Toronto, at an average pub, I can probably buy three pints of beer for the cost of Greg’s Zwanze and maybe even have a little change left over. And if I’m in a social and thirsty mood, I’ll probably derive the same degree of pleasure from them. But I can pretty much guarantee that they will not have the same flavour impact as the Cantillon.

I could go on, but I won’t. My point is that valuing beer on the basis of it being “beer” is both wrong and disrespectful to the brewer’s craft. There is no “absolute price” a beer should be, only its worth relative to all the other expenses we face in life.

In Praise of Simple Enjoyment

The fellows over at Brewed for Thought and BetterBeerBlog, aided and abetted by one Mr. Stan Hieronymus, have raised the topic of beer price again, and so we dive merrily (drunkenly?) into the rabbit hole once again.

I’ve contributed all I want to contribute already over at Stan’s blog, but the issue, coupled with my enjoyment last night of The Spirit of Toronto whisky festival, made me think about the nature of enjoyment and the role played in it by that thing the trade rags call beverage alcohol. Because if you ask me, now more than ever, a good beer or whisky or glass of wine truly is one of life’s great affordable luxuries, and will remain so even as prices creep up and the phrase “affordable luxury” becomes battered and bruised from sometimes outrageous misuse. (A cruise as an affordable luxury? Give me a break!)

I look at it this way. The most I’m likely to pay for a beer is about $30 for a 750 ml bottle, perhaps a bit higher if I’m indulging myself in a bar or restaurant or visiting a Whole Foods in northern California when my curiosity gets the better of me. For that price, I will most likely get a minimum of an hour’s worth of enjoyment, less if I’m sharing and more if I’m kicking back at home and leisurely sipping at a few glasses of premium brew. Because I have the money and because I believe I work hard for it, I think that $30 is money well spent, whether it’s going towards the purchase of beer or wine or whisky or an outrageously good cocktail. If I had a lot more money, I’d probably be willing to spend more for that precious piece of enjoyment, just as if I didn’t have the cash, I wouldn’t buy the beer.

Compared to any number of things that cost me more and pleasure me less, that simple enjoyment comes as a true bargain indeed. End of story.