Jul 26, 2007

More Wine-Beer Parallelism

Regular readers of Bar Stories know that I find the continuing beer vs. wine debate among those who typically claim themselves to be educated drinkers to be consistently comic (and, really, just a load of...hooey. Poppycock? Okay, okay, it's a load of horsesh--).

As further proof that wine and beer share certain similarities, I point to the ongoing debate within each industry over hot wines and extreme beers, respectively. It seems that both wine and beer have a contingent of followers who absolutely love a highly alcoholic (and in the case of beer, highly hopped) beverage.

But then there are the "average" drinkers: the bulk of folks who don't know nor particularly care about the nuanced differences between a French Bordeaux and an American Meritage, who don't understand (nor care about) how an extra pale ale really differs from an IPA. These folks happen to be the bulk of the market, which means that when trends like "extreme" beer and highly alcoholic wines take off, there are a whole of people left out in the cold. Witness winemaker Randy Dunn's latest missive:
"The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16. +% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal...I don’t believe the average person is so insensitive to flavors and aromas that they must have a 15% Cabernet, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir to get the aromas and flavors."
Now compare this to Lew Bryson's exploration of the extreme beer backlash in February's issue of Beer Advocate magazine:
"...we are, as Independence Brew Pub (Philadelphia) brewer Tim Roberts reminds us, a very small group: 'While we might consider Sierra Nevada Bigfoot tame,' he says, 'almost everyone else in the world would disagree. It's a very small group of people that feel that those types of [highly alcoholic, highly hopped] beers are somehow standard now, and want something more over-the-top.'"
The fact is, the majority of the market doesn't want extreme. And this is equally true for both beer and wine. The funny thing about it, though, is that I suspect many extreme wine fans have discovered an appreciation for extreme beers through their very love of such...extremity, and vice versa. Those who seek out intense flavors and tongue-tingling ABV levels easily recognize such characteristics in other beverages, which can quickly open up a whole new world to them.

Now, I would never advocate limiting production of any particular kind of wine or beer. Instead, I think we'd all be better served if producers would keep taking risks, keep seeking out new audiences for their "fringe" products, and keep mastering the old standbys as well. It's all a matter of appreciating the various points on a single beverage spectrum.


camper said...

Good point. The same thing is happening in spirits: 7-year-old tequila and chardonnay-finished bourbon, anyone? In these cases, the extreme versions are usually limited production which makes them collectors' items. But more importantly for long-aged spirits, high-alcohol wine, and intensely bittered beer what you get out of producing one is a press release and your name in the paper, increasing brand recognition. I think that many of these companies do it for no other reason than that.

Jessie Jane said...

True that. And while it's not necessarily a bad thing—companies need to make a name for themselves in the marketplace—it often comes at the expense of mastering the products that appeal to their broader customer base.

Of course, then you look at a company like Stone Brewing, whose customer base really IS the "extreme" drinker, and my theory is blown to bits.

But Stone, too, has mastered their extremity; Ruination, Arrogant Bastard, et al. are all incredible beers.

It boils down to a producer really taking a cold hard look at their own particular market segment, and making the effort to produce the highest quality bevs for that segment's needs/wants. And at the end of the day, the bulk of those segments have less extreme tastes.


Stan Hieronymus said...

A spot-on post, Jess.

I have a friend who likes all manner of beers, but particularly hoppy, bold ones. For wine (at least when he is buying) he sticks with big, boozy Zins because he knows just what he is getting and the quality/cost factor suits him.

Wine drinkers (at least some) seem to be more willing to pay extra for nuance. I hope that beer drinkers learn to do the same.

Case in point: Bam Biere from Jolly Pumpkin. It is 4.5% abv (no alcohol bomb) but sells for $13.99 a six-pack around here.

Jessie Jane said...

Y'know, Stan, I think that's exactly what we're seeing. Seems to me that brewers as a whole are recognizing the market shift towards flavor (maybe not that extreme, but certainly in both food and beverage, consumers are becoming more educated and more appreciative of different flavors), and they're starting to capitalize on that.

Marketing is all a dance—the consumer opts for something, the producers exploit that quiet choice, and then all of a sudden everyone demands it. I'd like to think we're seeing that happen with flavor-focused beverages, and that the "extreme" edges of this trend are simply the side-effects (or maybe the precursor, but who can say?).