Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Does A Brewer Need An 'Extreme' Beer To Keep Drinkers Interested?

Over at a very nice piece discusses whether Sierra Nevada has lost its 'cred' amongst craft beer lovers. The writer visits the Monks Kettle in San Francisco to find 'trendy' drinkers scornfully dismissive of SNPA.

Sierra Nevada was at the forefront of the craft beer revolution in the US. They survived the shakeout of the 90's and are now the sixth biggest brewer in the US, and rank second amongst craft brewers with an annual output of almost 700,000 US bbl (just under half a million UK bbl). One of their alumni, Scott Vaccaro, is now out on his own, brewing excellent beers in upstate New York as Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.

For some years now SN beers have been available to the UK, including recently on draught in keg and cask, and the supply chain is efficient enough that we're drinking 2009 Celebration on tap at the same time as our US counterparts.

But, the questions raised by the article seem to boil down to this: when a brewery becomes successful does that mean it has to sacrifice its 'cred' amongst drinkers? Is it right to label a brewery like SN 'mainstream'? And is this a symptom of the shark-like attitude of the ticker community in craft beer, who need to keep moving to the next 'trend', 'extreme' beer or limited edition release, or die?

In the UK, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been on supermarket shelves for many years, and I've had success in tuning UK beer drinkers into the US scene and overcoming perceptions created by the likes of Bud, Miller or Coors, by introducing them to SNPA. Given it can be picked up quite easily, adding a bottle or two to the weekly shop is no problem. So, a perfect crossover beer.

And in a wider sense, it's why brewers like Sierra Nevada are important to the craft scene. They're pathfinders, they make beers which don't strike apprehension or fear into drinkers. They seed the ground for what comes after, for the many drinkers who quickly develop appreciation and a taste for the other great beers the US is sending us. Without SNPA in your local Tesco, I wonder whether there would ever have been the momentum to get much of this other great beer into the market?

The brewery has shaken up its range, adding some new bottled beers to the core offering, and there's collaboration underway with Dogfish Head. But my view is that this wouldn't matter. SNPA is a great beer in its own right, and if the success it has fueled is a bad thing, then craft beer will never break out.


rabidbarfly said...

Great post Sid, it's hard enough getting people to get into craft beer in this country without that sort of crap starting to happen, are we about to see an American version of CAMRA for craft brewers? i.e beer snobs. I don't believe that brewers need a so-called extreme beer to stay interesting. Let's not forget that the cask stuff that Sierra Nevada do is absolutely sublime, bring it on I say! I personally can't wait to get Sierra Nevada Torpedo over here on cask! and the SNPA always goes down well too.

David, Little Omenden Farm and Nursery said...

As a long term beer lover, I've only learnt this year that America actually produces decent beer, and had my first glass of (naturally)Sierra Nevada Pale Ale this Christmas. My comments: a good, clean hoppy beer, but with a slight "biscuity" taste. Perfectly good, but it didn't blow my socks off, and in all honesty not worth fetching half way round the world in these environmentally challenged times.I'll stick with Westerham's Viceroy IPA for the rest of this Christmas-I love it, and the carbon f/p is much less.

Sid Boggle said...

@Glyn: Sadly, beer snobs seem to be everywhere. I got a feeling of déja vu when I read the piece, as I'm old enough to remember New Order fans feeling let down once 'their' band wasn't unknown any more. Maybe these people resent having to share.

@wittenden: There is a separate discussion to be had about drinking local - CAMRA encourages it with LocALE. I haven't tried the Viceroy, but have heard nice things about it. Is it only in NT shops?

David, Little Omenden Farm and Nursery said...

Sid-mercifully no! I've bought it from independent deli's and the Biddenden Vineyards shop, for about £1 less than the NT charges (bless 'em).You could possibly get it from the Brewery if you live within their delivery area(mostly TN postcodes, but we live in TN27 which is too far out!)