Since 2015 I’ve been working on the Master Vintner project for Northern Brewer/Midwest Supplies. As Technical Winemaking Advisor I’ve been incredibly happy putting my skills to good use, bringing out the first new kit introduced into the home winemaking in more than a decade. First we launched our Small Batch kits, along with Winemaker’s Reserve and Tropical Bliss, and now we’ve added Limited Edition and Sommelier Select.
After 25 years in the wine business, it’s immensely gratifying to be in a position where I don’t have compromise on anything. The vineyards I work with, the grapes I get, the winemakers who do the blending and packaging for me, they’re all the product of a process that has one straightforward goal–help people make great wine, every time.
Throw in a customer service team that really, truly gets what it’s all about (one bad experience and people never come back, so do your best always, and fix everything, every time) and I’ve been in pretty much a state of work-related bliss. Heck, I’ve only worn a suit three times since I’ve been with the team–that’s bliss in itself. Plus, I now get to actually get back to beer, something that I couldn’t do for over 15 years. Oh beer, I’m sorry I was gone so long: I’ll never leave you again!
NB Canada is a full-service home beer and winemaking supply site. Soon we’ll have most of Northern Brewer USA‘s wonderful content and products, along with Master Vintner winemaking supplies and some special additions as well (mainly me!)
Will There Be a Local Shop?
Notice I said ‘site’: we’re mostly internetting it. Northern Brewer USA has some very nice brick and mortar stores, but they grew organically from local shops. Here we’re starting fresh and e-commerce is the goal.
But that doesn’t mean we’re an interwebs discount house. A lot of people in the industry who own consumer wine and beer making shops will have heard my lecture: “Don’t discount: a race to the bottom on prices hurts you, your business, your employees and ultimately your consumer when you can’t afford to expand or improve your selection and service.” (Actually, I usually said it a lot more colourfully, and with more emphasis.)
Not only do I stand by those words as staunchly as ever, so does Northern Brewer. From their company philosophy:
The future of homebrewing
We didn’t open six months ago to make a quick buck off a hobby that’s trendy right now; we are interested in the long-term health of homebrewing (. . .) . We dedicate a significant percentage of our profits to give back to the community and to create new homebrewers. When you shop with Northern Brewer, you are helping to make an investment in the future of homebrewing.
Northern Brewer has been serving homebrewers and winemakers for over 22 years, and we aren’t going anywhere. Rock-bottom, fire-sale price structures are unsustainable and create an uneven playing field that ultimately hurts the industry, hobby, and the community. Our price structure is competitive but built around sustainability, because our goal is to grow homebrewing as a hobby and industry, which will benefit the consumer by sustainable lower prices and improved selection through increased demand.
You can see how that suits the criteria of my value system. I know a lot of people in the industry, I helped quite a number of them open their stores, others I’ve simply enjoyed as peers and friends. I’m pleased to be in the boat with them, and not as a discounter just out to grab market share.
Next, we get Northern Brewer Canada fully stocked. We keep adding products and content and give you great service and excellent value on innovative products. After that, you let me know: we’ve got a Limited Edition program, we’ll be bringing in some kick-butt clone recipe kits for beer (how do you feel about having a Pliny the Elder clone as your house beer?)
I’m looking forward to a great time bringing Northern Brewer to Canada and keeping Master Vintner hopping as well. Check out the Master Vintner blog and tune into our Instagram (@Nbrewcanada) and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/northernbrewercanada/
Tim Vandergrift Announces New Wine Kit Production Facility, KitWorld Inc.
By Fal Ernian, Vinotas News Service
April 1, 2016
Modesto, Ca – Canadian company Tim Vandergrift Consulting and Communications Inc. announced today that it has finished construction on a 200,000 square foot processing facility for grapes, juices and concentrate, and will be releasing its new wine kits this month.
Construction of the facility, underwritten by private equity firm Lord-Buckley Capital, began in 2014 and final inspections and certifications were completed in March, during which a test run of thirty thousand kits was processed. Officials in the California Department of Food and Agriculture have certified the facility as fully operational and KitWorld Inc. goes into production today.
TVCC expects this facility to open up the US home winemaking market and widen its customer base by more than two million users.
“If we look at the Canadian market for wine kits”, says Chief Disruption Officer Tim Vandergrift, “It’s 20% of total sales, domestic and import–literally, for every case of wine opened in Canada on any day, two of those bottles were made by consumers: there’s not much to do in the land of moose and snow except to make wine and enjoy socialised medicine, ha ha! In the USA the total is far lower–despite the fact that the USA has a quarter of a billion people of legal drinking age, fewer than 7 million bottles are made by consumers at home. That’s less than 0.15% of the total wine consumed. Our initial goal is to raise that to 1% of the total, a 666% increase, and long term we want Americans to experience the drinking level of the average Canadian, and capture 20% of the US market, and net our company the largest share of the beverage industry in history!”
TVCC began planning for the facility early on, hiring Conjectural Technology’s esteemed winemaker Professor Corey Irwin, the world’s foremost authority and co-inventor of the formal tennis shoe. Professor Irwin’s knowledge and guidance allowed the facility to be completed in record time, with over 220 varieties of wine ready for production.
“We had to develop an entirely new type of drone to be able to vector a payload of nearly sixty pounds,” explains Fujin Shinatobe, Flight Operations Manager for Fukaze Drones. “New battery technology and powerful permanent magnet motors allowed us to construct the A-10 drone, dubbed, ‘The Winehog’. We actually built it like a wine kit with a drone sticking out of it as opposed to a drone carrying a wine kit.”
With initial capacity at four thousand drones scalable to ten thousand in the first year and twenty thousand in the second, Kitworld expects to meet 100% of US demand for consumer-produced wine going forward, and plans to expand to Europe and Asia by 2020.
More information is expected to be released following a shareholders meeting on April 2nd, 2016.
About Tim Vandergrift Consulting and Communications:
Founded in 2014, Tim Vandergrift Consulting and Communications is a White Rock-based marketing and brand-strategy firm in the beverage industry. It specialises in wholesome, healthy, wine lifestyle promotions and is committed to using only free-range imagery to create dialogue and market products for its clients. It has clients in countries and is 100% gluten-cruelty free.
To learn more about KitWorld, please contact
Sue Donym, Media Relations
600 Yosemite Blvd, Modesto, CA 95354, United States
Conjectural Technology Laboratories, a division of Tim Vandergrift Worldwide, is excited to announce the ultimate kit winemaking product, one that will revolutionise both the the use and the appreciation of wine. A decade of research and development has produced the ultimate device for detecting and defining the most subtle nuances of wine, the Beverage Vaporiser.
The Beverage Vaporiser system (also known as the Volcano for it’s cone-shaped appearance) allows the user to
Drink wine as young as 10 days old
Taste 100% of the nuances of any wine, regardless of type or quality
Identify not only grape variety and style like a wine professional, but even to name the terroir, region grown and even the vineyard, with no training or study!
“The concept is actually very simple”, says Dr. Ann Credulous, Director of the Conjectural Technology Lab for Tim Vandergrift. “Wine is a solution of organic compounds, with many volatile fractions–esters, ketones, aldehydes, thiols, monoterpenes, pyrazines, etc. For the most part The majority of volatile compounds responsible for aroma combine with sugars in the wine to form odorless glycosides. Through the process of hydrolysis, caused by enzymes or acids in the wine, they revert into an aromatic form. The act of tasting wine is essentially the act of smelling these vaporized aroma compounds. What we have done is found a way to duplicate the hydrolytic process that releases these aromas with tuned heat and vibration in a volatizing chamber.”
While the concept is simple, the results are anything but.
“Olfactory receptors cells, Dr. Credulous continues, “Each sensitive to a different aroma, pick up these compounds and transfer the information to the brain by way of the olfactory bulb. In the 1980s there was renewed focus in studying the correlation between aroma/flavor compounds in grapes and the resulting quality of wine. Scientists were able to use chromatograph-mass spectrometers to identify volatile aroma compounds in various grape varieties. It was our research into the action of the gas chromatograph chamber action that lead to the discovery of induced hyrdrolysis.”
The Beverage Vaporiser works like this: the wine to be sampled is loaded into the Volcano and is put through the patented Chromatographic Hydrolysis Chamber. There, through a tuned system of temperature, resonance frequencies and aetheric distribution algorithms, the wine is turned into a richly textured, intensely flavourful vapour. Inhaled gently, this vapour reveals every aromatic compound and every bit of the bouquet and nuance of your wine. According to Credulous, that’s the key to identifying wine like a pro.
“By extracting and concentrating all of the aromas of wine in a small volume, they’re more pronounced. Anyone who has ever struggled to identify a particular character in a wine will be able to instantly smell blackberry in a Cabernet, or cat urine in a Sauvignon Blanc! Using pre-set algorithms in the Volcano, wines will release aromatic profiles identical to famous wines and vintages, from ’47 Mouton to 2001 Screaming Eagle. Training your palate has never been easier!”
And there’s more. According the Director of Customer Experience William Nelson,
“Because we tune the precise type and quantity of volatiles that are released, we ensure that only the finest, richest aromas come out. We can make an inexpensive or very young wine release the same aromatic character of a first-growth or Premier Cru wine that’s been aged for years, even decades.”
“But that’s only the beginning: because ethanol is a volatile compound we can suppress the hydrolisation frequency of alcohol in the machine–the vapour is as delicious as wine, but won’t lead to intoxication or drunkenness! The whole point of wine appreciation is to identify the character of a wine, to appreciate it for itself. By eliminating the effects of alcohol on the nervous system we can extend that pleasure indefinitely, and consumers can use as much wine as they want, without introducing toxins into their body or straining their liver.”
Of course, consumers can set the machine to deliver ethanol if they wish, by selecting the correct menu item on the touchscreen and agreeing to the End User License Agreement.
While there are plans for several types of vaporisers, including the portable prototype shown above, the Volcano is the first wine ‘Vape’ being launched. The Volcano Classic quality is first rate, and the build quality is incredibly durable: it’s made by a German company, Snortzen-Pickel, who offer a 3 year warranty standard on every purchase. Both the aromatic tuning and chamber size are adjustable to suit your needs–it can vaporise up to three litres of wine at one time, allowing you to serve two dozen guests easily.
The Beverage Vaporiser Volcano will be available in late September, timed to use in conjunction with the 2015 harvest. “We’re extremely proud of this product,” Says Ann Credulous, “Drinking wine is now a thing of the past–and rather than just sniffing a vintage like cavemen, we can literally inhale every drop!”
Warren definitely put his finger on it: in the face of intransigent problems sometimes strong solutions are required, like legal advice, firearms, or piles of cash. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of such a solution, sometimes a bit of critical thinking is the best cure you could hope for.
(Hicks) tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine. Almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA’s maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion. No one can say for sure why, but Hicks noticed a pattern.
“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic,” he said.
This sounds terribly alarming. And, it gets worse:
CBS News took those results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at U.C. Berkeley.
“These are about two to three times in this particular sample, the drinking water standard, and they vary, they fluctuated, but some of them were up to three, four or five times the drinking water standard,” Smith said.
Smith said 50 parts per billion of arsenic — the highest level found in one of the bottles Hicks tested — can be deadly over time.
Even though “parts per billion” seems like a very small amount, Smith said “Arsenic is highly toxic; it’s astonishing.”
“It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking does,” Smith said.
The obvious conclusion that Hicks and CBS want you to draw is WINE WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! PANIC! HURRY UP AND PANIC ABOUT WINE!
It sounds terrible. And it’s meant to, because the guy who helped gin up the lawsuit stands to profit from it. You see, BeverageGrades doesn’t offer lab services for wineries based on their need to make biochemically correct wine. It’s business model is one of ‘certification’. For a fee, they’ll test your wine and reassure consumers that it’s ‘safe’. From their website:
BeverageGrades is a private company offering lab testing, quality assurance and certification of alcoholic beverages for suppliers, restaurants, retailers and ultimately, the end consumer.
But you can’t ask the consumer to pay for the testing–it’s too expensive on an ad hoc basis. So it’s up to BeverageGrades to get money out of wineries. Unfortunately, according to the CBS report
He took the test results to some of those wine companies.
“Most wine companies, when I mention arsenic and wine in the same sentence, literally almost hung up the phone on me,” he said.
The next step, he said, was to supply the data to a law firm.
“He was trying to get their attention; he was trying to blow the whistle on them,” attorney Brian Kabateck said.
Initially this sounds horrifying, and smacks of coverups, shady deals and would seem to suggest a scenario of a crusading laboratory saving the public from a campaign to poison them. But this doesn’t hold up when you start looking at the facts. The first is that BeverageGrades will profit from increased testing using their certification, which amounts to a strong-arm job, or it will profit as a paid expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of ‘consumers’. To the point, BeverageGrades issued a press release:
BeverageGrades believes that retailers need a screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all of the alcoholic beverages they sell, and particularly their control or private label brands.
And that is what Hicks sells: relief from fear. If it happens to be the relief of fear caused by an irresponsible and valueless lawsuit that he ginned up with a bent premise, then all the more power to him for a creative way to increase business.
There is some question, however, if he was actually the discreet and altruistic consumer advocate he makes himself out to be. From the very good article by Snopes on this:
Wine Spectator contacted some of the wine brands named in the lawsuit, many of whom stated that Hicks had made no effort to contact them before filing the class action, although he did send out a press release to some wine vendors offering his company’s testing services to them:
[A wine company] spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. The same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”
Well, well, well.
A very troubling issue is the conflation of safe standards for arsenic for water and for wine. There is no federally mandated standard for wine. Sure, drinking water is set at 10 PPB, and the average adult drinks two litres of water per day, and furthermore uses the water to cook, make other beverages, and to wash and bathe. It makes sense to set drinking water standards very low.
However, anybody drinking two litres of wine per day, and using it exclusively to cook, make coffee and bathe is living a very odd lifestyle. They’ll be dead of acute alcohol poisoning or the effects of chronic overconsumption of alcohol before there are any measurable effects from arsenic on their system, so comparing water to wine is a waste of time.
And the amount of arsenic you could consume in wine isn’t even in the same league as other sources. For instance, the FDA limit for daily inorganic arsenic intake from shellfish (mussels, clams, and oysters) is 30ppm (parts per million) versus 30ppb (parts per billion) in apple or pear juice. That’s right: you can consume one thousand times more arsenic in a bowl of cioppino than you can from a juice box–or a glass of wine.
Interestingly, Canada has a standard for Arsenic in wine: 100 PPB. I haven’t been able to find out how that level was determined, but for the moment I’m assuming “common sense”, based on levels cited for drinking water extrapolated for wine consumption’. According to Stephen Cater, director of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:
In the past year alone, the LCBO quality assurance laboratory tested more than 11,900 wines for arsenic levels, including 1543 wines from California. All of the wines from California that the LCBO lab tested and subsequently offered for sale were below the maximum allowable limit for arsenic. We have not observed elevated arsenic levels in US wines compared to what is found in wines from other regions and countries.
11,900, last time I checked, was a much higher number than the 1300 Wicks tested, and the fact that world wines are comparable to US wines is significant, since you’d expect to see a spike if indeed cheap US wines were heavily contaminated.
Which brings us to the bottom line: is this a real story, or is it a health panic induced by an unscrupulous laboratory and a predatory lawyer, for their personal profit? That will have to come out in court because you can bet there will be counter-suits for damages and some serious legal scrapping.
What we can tell right now is this: the amount of arsenic in wine won’t materially contribute to the overall levels of arsenic taken in by the average consumer, unless they’re actively trying to kill themselves with wine. Should we be concerned about the food and drink we consume? Always! But there’s a time to panic and a time to use common sense and reason to navigate the world, and this is one of the latter.
Now if I may be excused, I’m going to go drink an entire bottle of wine, because I feel I may be low on important trace elements, like happiness, contentment and joy.
Days late yet still contributing to the spread of Hick’s misinformation scaremongering, Mother Jones wrote yet another non-journalistic, click-bait ‘article’ with a terroristic headline. If you’d like to share the disdain, you can read it here.
At least the person who cut and pasted the clickbaitery published an addendum. Here it is:
Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit’s contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.” A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs “decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain.”
How happy am I? I’m ecstatic! How proud am I of the Master Vintner project? So proud that I put my name right on the box!
I’ve been working with my friends at Northern Brewer for the last year to make this happen. It’s been an amazing time, and a lot of fun working with the crew there. Designing a new wine kit might seem easy at first blush. After all it’s just a matter of putting some stuff in a box and a bag of grape juice and away you go.
Only not really: there’s a lot of logistical and technical issues that need to be solved. Ordering grape materials has to precede the harvest by months in order to ensure you get the best of the vineyard. Then you need to formulate, get the juices cold stabilised and ready to blend, make and test blends (like all wineries, kit manufacturers blend for character and consistency) and then test your packaging protocols to make sure they will arrive to customers in good condition.
Beyond that, it’s a whole new world of equipment, specific to the 1 US-gallon size, that needs to be integrated to make sure it works well together and makes the best wine possible. Lucky for me there’s a great team doing the sourcing and manufacturing, making me look good!
My Master Vintner equipment and supplies arrived this week and I got cracking right away. Step one, unbox and check the contents.
The equipment kit contains almost everything you need to make a one US-gallon (5-bottle) batch of wine. You’ll have to supply the wine bottles, which can be saved from the recycling (hurrah environment!) and labels, which are fun to make for yourself.
The first step is to read the equipment list, make sure everything is there–pretty much a sure thing from Northern Brewer. Next, we need to pull out our wine kit and check out that puppy. The first one I laid hands on was a Merlot.
California Merlot is going to be rich and soft, with warm berry and dark cherry fruit and supple tannins. Mmm!
Next, let’s take a look at the ingredients, and most especially the instructions.
The wine kit has yeast, finings, stabilisers and a fabulous set of well-written and lucid instructions (yes, I wrote them).
I dove into making the kit immediately, but that’s only because I wrote (and re-wrote, and edited and re-wrote) the instructions myself. Everyone else should immediately put everything back in the box, seal it up and sit down and carefully and slowly read the instructions from beginning to end–if you’re not sure of anything, don’t start until you get it straight!
But don’t worry about that too much: ultimately, if you can make a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal, you’re qualified to make your first batch of wine without any problem–I promise.
After reading the instructions, the first step is to mark off Little Big Mouth at the one-gallon line. LBM’s aren’t pre-marked because it’s a tricky process, and some folk’s jugs might not be completely standard, or the markings might get altered in shipping and handling. Better to do it in your own winemaking area so you’re confident you’ve got it right.
The best way to do it is to fill your gallon jug right up to the neck, about two fingers below the tippy-top.
You then pour the jug into your LBM.
Because the next step is to get things clean and sanitised (cleanliness is next to goodliness for winemaking), I put my winemaking cleaner right into the LBM, to save a step. The Oxygen Cleanser included in the equipment kit a great product–you can’t use home cleaners because they have too much perfume and other weird chemicals, which can leach into the wine and leave strange flavours.
Next step is to mark off the 1-gallon level. I used some white Duct Tape and a permanent marker.
And then it’s into the sink with the other items needed for day one: hydrometer and test jar, wine thief, lid, spoon, bung and airlock.
While the equipment comes brand-new, so it’s not stained or dirty, it’s still a good idea to give it a very good cleaning before you use it–just like you would any new plates, glasses or cups you brought into your kitchen.
After a 20 minute soak and a scrub to remove all surface debris, I rinsed everything thoroughly and then sanitised with a metabisulphite solution.
Metabisulphite solutions are the second part of cleaning and sanitising. While Oxygen Cleanser leaves your equipment clean enough to eat off of, it’s not ready to use for winemaking. For that you need to treat the surfaces with a solution that will suppress bacterial activity, and in winemaking the easiest stuff to use is a solution of three tablespoons (50 grams) of crystalline sulphite powder in 4 litres (one gallon) of water. Note that absolute accuracy isn’t crucial here, because you’re shooting for a solution that will yield 1250 Parts Per Million of free sulphite and the difference between one gallon and 4 litres or three tablespoons and 50 grams won’t move it more than a few dozen PPM.
I didn’t take any pictures of sulphiting the equipment because a) I didn’t know how to make that look exciting, and b) I always have a spray bottle of the stuff under the counter and I just grabbed it and sluiced everything down, waited 5 minutes and rinsed. By the time I remembered I was photoblogging I had already started the wine. Whoopsie. In any case, I went on to the next step, grabbing the bag of winemaking concentrate.
The caps on these bags fit extremely tight–they have to to exclude oxygen and spoilage organisms. If you’ve got long fingernails, or issues with grip strength (which is to say, if you’re not built like an ogre like me) you can pry them up with the edge of a butter knife (nothing sharp, please!) or use a bottle opener on the edge (works like a charm) or invest in a bag decapper. This doohickey fits exactly over the standard cap and levers it off in a jiffy.
Fortunately for me, I am built like an economy-version ogre, so I just pull it straight off. I am also good with opening pickle jars and other applications of brute-force and ignorance.
Careful, though: the juice is very high in sugar and red varietals can really stain fabrics–easy does it.
Next, pour the bag contents into the LBM.
Rinse the bag out with two cups of lukewarm water and add it to the LBM as well.
An important word on temperature: the kit has to be between 72°F and 77°F (22°C and 25°C for non-Americans). This is crucial for the success of the kit, because the yeast need to get fermenting quickly so your wine can stay on schedule. That means a bit of management: if the kit is coming in from a cold garage you’ll need a bit warmer water to make it up. If you’re in a heat wave in Florida, you’ll need to cool that water down a bit.
But it’s not terribly tricky. To hit my target temperature I ran the water in my sink for a minute until it hit 77°F and topped up the fermenter to the 1 gallon mark with that. When it was at the right level, it was time to stir.
You have to stir hard. Pouring the water into the juice makes it look like everything is well mixed, but that’s an illusion: concentrate and water have very different coefficients of viscosity and left to themselves, they’ll settle out. I gave it a darn good whipping with the shiny stainless steel spoon that came with the kit.
Next up, some measurements. First, the temperature check. I pasted on the Fermometer on the LMB and had a look.
With the temperature well in hand, it was time to check the specific gravity. I assembled the three piece wine thief and used it to fill the test jar.
With the level of the wine relatively low, it takes about three trips with the thief to fill the test jar. When it was full enough to float the hydrometer I popped it in and checked it.
If you’ve never read a hydrometer before, there’s a trick to it: don’t look at the wine where it meets the hydrometer. Surface tension will pull it up the glass tube and give a false reading. Instead, look across the surface of the juice and draw an imaginary line from that surface across the hydrometer markings. In this case it was a solid reading at 1.090–perfect.
Next up, time to pitch the yeast. There’s a lot of information out there about rehydrating yeast and stirring it in and suchlike. For the Master Vintner wine kit, follow the instructions and just rip the package open and pour the yeast onto the surface of the juice.
And that’s it for day one. The only thing left to do is to wait 8 days for the next step.
Well, not quite. I had three more kits to make up!
I’ll update when it’s time to rack the wine from the LBM’s to the jugs. In the meantime they’re bubbling away merrily, making alcohol and smelling better every day. Yum!
And then I did a little bit of travelling. Since the end of August I’ve been to:
In that time I’ve been to Hop and Brew School, done wine opportunity seminars for consumer beverage retailers, Limited Edition wine and food pairing events, shot many videos, attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival, helped plan catalogues, merchandised stores, drank beer and laughed a lot.
And now I’m typing this up in an airport lounge waiting to jet off to Winnipeg. I’ve had some exceptionally good luck with local weather on my travels, and had a lot of fun working with my friends in all of the cities I’ve visited, and I’m looking forward to the same over the next week.
I’ve got three or four blogs lined up, and soon I’ll have some very exciting news to share, but that’ll have to wait another few days: I’ve got some sales training to do, another couple of Limited Edition wine tastings and a webinar session for the members of the Canadian Craft Winemakers Association.
It’s a good and timely question: over 400 new craft breweries opened in the last year in the USA. In my home of British Columbia we’re getting something like thirty new craft breweries a year right now–and it’s picking up every day.
Why are people so hot on craft beer–particularly at a time when macro beers (the pale, fizzy stuff that requires advertising on television) are declining precipitously? It’s so bad for the major breweries right now that they’re on incredibly aggressive acquisition schedules, buying foreign premium breweries (such as Becks) and then tossing the recipes and filling the pretty ‘imported’ bottles with BudMillerCoors Standard Western Industrial Light Lager (S.W.I.L.L.) It’s not doing them any good, mind: as soon as they acquire and ruin a new brand, sales fall off a cliff. 4th quarter sales for MillerCoors are down 2% on domestic sales. Pete Coors, chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors summed up their problem quite succinctly in an interview with The Denver Post:
“Basically the biggest trouble we have is on-premise sales,” he said. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers. They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles. We lose 50 percent of our volume when that happens.”
The company is trying to compel bar owners to keep their beers on tap by impressing them with facts.
“We have done research that shows it’s not in the economic benefit for a bar to do that,” he said. “Having a premium light brand, whether it’s Coors, Miller or Bud on tap actually improves the economics of their business. People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars.”
It’s hard to be cynical enough with that series of statements. Coors is, of course, a deluded plutocrat, scion and heir to a fortune (which tends to make people quite able to deny observable reality and substitute their own) and really wants to preserve that fortune.
Simply put, the reason why bar owners are replacing S.W.I.L.L. with craft taps is that’s what beer consumers want. The extra 18 minutes he mentions probably comes from the fact that people can’t drink his beer fast enough because it’s ludicrously over-carbonated and they needed 15 of those 18 minutes to belch.
Back to neuroanthropology: why do craft beer lovers reject S.W.I.L.L. ? The article at PLOS is excellent and covers a lot of ground, hinging on the paradigms put forth by anthropologist Daniel Lende, who ‘proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful.’
All good stuff and there’s a great bit on blind trials using different beer glasses to gauge drinkers responses to actual rather than presumed flavours and aromas, but the two most significant points pretty much cover what drives craft beer drinkers away from S.W.I.L.L. and into better beer, flavour and engagement.
Typical S.W.I.L.L. beer uses very few ingredients (one malt, one or two hops, and some sugary adjuncts), that have low flavour (rice and corn taste like almost nothing after fermentation). The sad truth about these beers is that blindfolded, the most fervent of their partisans cannot tell them apart–they are specifically designed to be as flavourless as possible–offend fewer people, grab greater sales.
Craft beers on the other hand have the option of using many different kinds of malt–there are hundreds available–and in addition to the explosive growth of new hop varieties, they also add anything that strikes them as a positive–licorice? Sure! Coconut? You bet! And so on. They also use different yeast, and since yeast contributes heavily to the profile of a beer they can really stick the flavour knife in and twist it, adding aromas and flavours of bubblegum, melted butter or tropical fruits, if they desire. S.W.I.L.L. is universally made with alcohol-tolerant, neutral profile yeast.
All it takes is for a lover of beer is to try a few craft beers and as soon as they become normalised to the very different flavours and aromas, all S.W.I.L.L. tastes weak, watery and fizzy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same alcohol content or the same body, the relatively weak palate of flavours and neutral character makes it wimpy.
Engagement is the second part and it’s the secret key. It’s impossible to engage with a corporation that concentrates of return for its investors above all else–no matter how many small brewers they buy, no matter how hard they try to use those breweries and their beers as a mask to try to cajole people to like their overall portfolio, it won’t work.
I engage with breweries that can tell me an authentic story about their beer–who made it, where the recipe came from, how they feel about it, and what cool stuff they’ve done and plan to do next. A corporation, designed only to make money for investors, doesn’t have a story like that, and as soon as they purchase a craft brewery they destroy its story as well.
And a corporation will never, ever understand why. Because they could be making bricks or shoes, and don’t care what the vehicle for their revenue stream is. Real craft breweries engage their drinkers with not only flavour, aroma and choice, but also with a real dedication to the idea that beer is more than just a drink–it’s a gateway to an experience.
I have a zillion things going on right now, and it’s making me very happy indeed. I’m not a chap for sitting quietly and waiting for events to unfold. That way lies madness for me. Luckily, the unfolding, she comes. First, after a relatively short wait, I got a spot of shoulder surgery that I really needed. I first injured my right shoulder back in the mid 1990’s, competing as a powerlifter.
The sport was very good to me, teaching me discipline, persistence, and the rewards of focusing on really big goals. The trade-off was, that high goals come with costs and I had three knee surgeries (which turned out well) but finally hurt my shoulder badly enough that I had to stop competing back in 2005. At the time I looked into surgery, but since I was considered extremely high-functioning (“It hurts when I bench-press more than 315 lb.” “Well, don’t do that.”) my best choice was to put off surgery until the techniques got better. Fast-forward a decade and they have. Last fall I went in for an assessment and day before yesterday they knitted me new set of rotator cuffs.
I had full ruptures of all my rotator cuff muscles, a torn biceps tendon, bone spurs and the head of my humerus apparently looked like a used golf ball. But all better! Other than being in a sling for two months, I’m pretty dang happy, and the prognosis is that I’m going to actually be able to return to training. Competitive powerlifting? Well, wouldn’t that be a trip . . . but we’ll see. I’ll just be glad to be able to reach for things on low shelves without having my arm flop out of the socket.
I’ve also got a couple of irons in the fire right now that are really exciting, product development-wise, plus something I’m terrifically pleased about. I hope to be able to let everyone know more very soon! Keep watching this blog, as I won’t be hiding any lights under bushels!