May 20 2009

Killian’s Irish Red Tasting Kit

Full disclosure?  I used to think that Killian’s Irish Red was a pretty awesome beer.

It was the early 90’s and I was bartending just outside of Washington, DC.  The bar I worked in had three beers on tap.  Yes, a whole three beers.  They were Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Killian’s.  I can pretend that it was terribly tragic at the time, or that I’m powerfully ashamed of liking the Irish Red. But it wasn’t. And I’m not. 

It was 1992.

Most of the craft breweries that I really love today didn’t even have a business plan, let alone were making beer back then.  These craft breweries were still just crazy schemes in a few homebrewers’ heads.  Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam were coming, but you couldn’t get them in grocery stores around here just yet.

I’d like to tell you a story about my father loving craft beer and passing his passion on to me, or that I was way ahead of my peers when it comes to the larger world of beer.  But neither of those would be true.  I still had a year or two before I figured it out.  Well, maybe I still haven’t “figured it out”, but I was starting to understand there was something better.

Killian’s was darker than the other beers, and that freaked my customers out.  They assumed it was going to be more bitter or heavier that the other pale lagers.  I would make the case again and again to the regulars that Killian’s just tasted better.  It was a little maltier, and it did not taste like, well, nothing at all, which the Bud and Lite did quite well.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and I got word from another homebrew club member that he had a code for a Killian’s Tasting Kit that came with pint glasses for free.  Since you can’t beat that price, I ordered one.  (To be clear, it appears that Killian’s figured out that loophole not long after, and they still offer the kit but require a proof of purchase and other information from a purchase of their beer.)

Right about the time I had forgotten about it, I got my tasting kit in a little cardboard poster tube a few months later.  The first surprises were the glasses.  Another member had mentioned that he needed new pint glasses since his were slowly breaking.  When he said that, I pictured nice, glass session glasses with some logo etching.  What I got were four tiny, plastic tasting glasses.  Remember in Spinal Tap when Nigel sketches out a Stonehenge prop for a performance, but mislabels the dimensions so it is made only 18 inches high instead of 18 feet?  Yeah, THAT guy made these glasses. 

(I threw in an adult-sized mug for perspective.)

I’m poking fun here, but I’m OK with the glasses.  Sure the labels are just stickers and they are painfully crooked, but I needed more tasting glasses.  I have a feeling these will be remarkably imperfect, too, which should give them lots of points of nucleation for bubbles and the like.  I’m still a little afraid that a dwarf is going to crush my glasses, but I digress.

Along with the glasses were a bottle opener (are Killian’s twist top?), a tasting mat and a booklet about tasting.  The mat echoes the booklet, so I’ll focus on the booklet. 

The beginning of the book tries to convince drinkers that darker beers aren’t bad, which is the line I was peddling back in college behind the bar.  They even have “Ye Ol’ Dark-o-meter” which I’m guessing is their One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish way of introducing SRMs

They also break the tasting session into five steps: Look, Swirl, Aroma, Taste and Cleanse.  Sensible steps, indeed.

The only thing that really confused me was the Beer Styles:

According to the book, the styles of beer are Pilsners, Belgian Wits (no other Belgian beers, just wits, of course), India Pale Ales (but not pale ales?), Killian’s Irish Red (which, since Killian’s is a lager, is the old European Lager category?), Brown Ales, Stouts and Porters.  I don’t expect them to lay down all the BJCP Style Guidelines, but this is more confusing than nothing at all.  Perhaps it would have been better to just stick with the ale and lager comparisons and contrasts.

So, what the hell is Coors trying to do here?  (You knew that Killian’s was made by Coors, right? I knew you knew, but I was just making sure….)   I think they are taking baby steps here to broaden drinkers’ horizons.  Sure, they are doing it in somewhat manipulative way to get people to drink their beer, but any step towards a non-golden lager is a step in the right direction.

It would be really, really easy to make fun of this kit, and I can’t say I’ve completely avoided the temptation.  But they are taking the tasting of beer seriously in this, and that is refreshing stance from a macro.  No frat boy chugging, and no glossy ad campaign. 

You can say they are a macro in craft beer clothing.  Maybe.  But isn’t a more educated drinker, in the end, the most important part?  A craft beer advocate can come from the humblest of beginnings.  It could be the guy behind the bar getting you to try something red and a little different.  It might be the drinker who is just starting to figure out that there might be something better out there.


Apr 7 2009

Triple Hopped or Russian Roulette?

Miller Lite is triple hopped. It’s true. They have a commercial that tells you that and everything.

Yeah, I think this is an amazing claim and I’m not going to dwell on it too much. It is a lager beer and touting its hoppiness, and use of hops, is laughable. Yes, lagers of course use hops, but the bottom line of the style is balance and smoothness. The marketing of their hopping schedule would make sense if they made beers where you could perceive the presence of hops at all, and big hop would not be to the style. But I digress.

This campaign of theirs had me thinking about the marketing of the macro-breweries, and I’m wondering if we are seeing a change in tactics from the big boys. Back in the day (yeah, THAT day), the commercials were all about being funny and throwing together any b-list entertainers and athletes they could. And I loved those commercials.

This trend has continued through the years from talking frogs to women having catfights in public fountains. What I think is interesting here is that the macros are actually starting to talk about their beers. Although beer sales have been down over the last few years for the entire industry, craft breweries have been grabbing up market share at a wonderfully alarming rate. These craft brewers have, and rightfully so, been turning the public’s attention to their flavorful and well-made brews rather than the coolness factor that the big boys have been living, and now dying, on.

Sam Adams has been doing a great job with big media in getting across the importance of ingredients and integrity. Frankly, they are one of the few who have the dollars to market through commercial and not through viral campaigns like the smaller craft brewers. (And, yes, it is hugely debatable whether or not you can classify a brewer that produces that many barrels of beer a year as still being a craft brewer.)

And I know that one gimmick does not make a trend, but I’m wondering if the Bud and Miller are going to try to play the quality game. They are amazing brewers and the beers they make are very difficult to brew from a technical standpoint. But this marketing direction just might force consumers to think about whether or not what the macros are making is worth drinking. I think that is a game of Russian roulette that they don’t want to play.

(I’ll spare you the Deer Hunter clip….)