Comment - Beer - Craft Beer: Bigger? Better? Faster? More?

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Visiting New York earlier this month, Pete Brown had a 'eureka' moment. Naturally, it followed a visit to a brewery, and came during a conversation with some beer marketing folk.

I suppose it was just a warehouse. But my, what you can do with a warehouse and a little vision and passion.

It was a Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. I was starting to feel a bit spaced after flying in earlier; my body clock was getting ready for bed but Brooklyn was just gearing up to see off the weekend in style. Four days later, a memory would return from the tail end of that evening; a memory of drinking vodka with pickle juice from the pickle jar. I’m still not sure if it’s a real memory, but it brought back Monday’s hangover with vivid authenticity.

But for now, despite being a little spaced and tight around the edges, I was sober, coherent and alert. That’s more than you could say for some other people in the warehouse. For this was Brooklyn Brewery, open to the public, as it is every Sunday afternoon. A cat glared at us from the roof of the souvenir concession, demanding to know who we thought we all were, sauntering onto its turf without asking. Stalls selling the work of local artists, or various appetising parts of dead pigs, pretzels and Mexican food, lined one long, white-washed wall. 

And at the end of the room was a bar, selling Brooklyn Brewery beers to an adoring public who queued politely for them, then sipped them while they waited for their turn on the brewery tour.

When Brewmaster Garrett Oliver appeared, people shyly approached him to shake hands, ask for autographs or simply tell him what an awesome job he was doing. When Garrett took us into a roped-off area by the bar, it felt as close as I’ll ever feel to being a VIP.

Garrett wanted me to taste two new beers he’s been working on. Well, I say new – they were first brewed years ago, and have been ageing in barrels ever since.

Brooklyn Local 1 is a Belgian-style strong saison, a formidable and intriguing beer in its own right. But, Garrett has been maturing it in Woodforde Reserve whiskey barrels laced with wine lees. The wild yeast clinging to the crushed grape skins caused a re-fermentation that took out any remaining residual sugar and added a wild yeast character, as flavours from the wood, the spirit and the wine lees joined the party. Wine, Belgian Lambic beer and traditional ale characters clash, fight and then make friends on the palate, in a beer that blurs the boundaries of what drinks are. Hints of vinegar, bubble gum, fruit, wine – oh, and beer – combine to beguile, confuse and intrigue the palate before a spritzy, dry, clean finish.

Black Ops, like its name suggests, is a beer that doesn’t officially exist. It’s spent four years in a Woodforde Reserve barrel, and pours like liquid chocolate pudding with a Bailey’s foam on top. It smells like the warm hug someone gives you when you’ve just finished crying, and tastes like sex makes you feel. There’s caramel, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, tobacco and cream, and a warmth that gently grows. But the most remarkable thing about the beer is that these flavours don’t pogo on your palate; they marry and dance gracefully, subtle and seamless.

Standing there behind the bar, sipping these remarkable beers from brandy balloons as the hubbub died down after the bar closed, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a few months previously with the global marketing team of a certain world famous beer brand.

They’d been segmenting the beer market - as you do - and had come up with a pen portrait of the craft beer drinker and their motivations. Craft beer, they said, was driven by connoisseurship. I nodded and agreed. And connoisseurship, they said, was characterised by conservatism, lack of risk, and low energy occasions.

Now hang on, I replied.

That might be what connoisseurship looks like in wine or malt whisky, but it couldn’t be more inaccurate as a description of the craft beer drinker. In craft beer, connoisseurship is all about experimentation, pushing the boundaries, finding and celebrating the new. And when you do so, the occasions are anything but quiet and reserved.

The global marketing team accepted this. But, then we got on to the core motivation for drinking craft beer. 

Well, that’s easy, I said. It’s flavour, pure and simple. 

We started to think about this, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Against the quiet appreciation of flavour offered by other drinks, I started to think there might be something a little bit different going on with craft beer. At its leading edge, it’s about big flavours. The word that has become a cliché is ‘awesome’, and craft beer drinkers are on a relentless search for shock and awe, for beers that stun you and intimidate. Beers with a hundred IBUs, beers that are above 10% abv, and beers with massive flavours.

Suddenly, thinking about it from a detached, marketer’s point of view, It seemed there was a great deal of bravado in the craft beer scene. "I like bigger, harder flavours than you." It’s in your face, and suddenly felt very macho. Mainstream lager is in many countries seen as a very masculine product, with laddish advertising, big sport associations and women in bikinis: I wondered if perhaps craft beer was just as masculine, dressing up machismo as sophistication?

Then, I realised that this is why I like Garrett Oliver and Brooklyn Brewery so much. While these experimental craft beers were complex and intriguing, they weren’t big and challenging – they may have been extraordinary, but they were also mellow. They were not confrontational; they were welcoming.

It was a new realisation for me. I think perhaps I’d always equated mellow with bland in my head, and now I realised these were two quite different things. There’s a time for beers that confront and challenge, and there’s a time for beers you just down without thinking. And, somewhere between the two, there are grown up, sophisticated beers that make you feel all posh and sophisticated. 

These are wonderful times to be a beer drinker.

Sectors: Beer & cider

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