Letter to the Editor: or A Few Words on … Beer vs. Wine, Round 2

wine v beer

To the editor,

Like a lot of beer nerds, it was hard to miss your recent New York Times piece about beer in large bottles, “Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause a Stir.”

Like a lot of beer nerds, I was confused. Are large bottles really a big deal? (no pun intended) Who is actually upset about beer in big bottles? Couldn’t there have been more context, history or sources quoted?

I’m really glad that Jay Brooks over at the Brookston Beer Bulletin decided to write something about it. You should really check it out. I think it’s what your reporter was shooting for. And pretty much missed.

But what got to me, sir/madam, was that the story really wasn’t about big bottles, per se.

It seemed to be about a “connection” that lots of people make about craft beer. Because, well, gosh darn, these days I guess beer is fancier then some people remember. And if beer is fancy, it surely must be the “new wine.” Since – as I’m sure you know as editor of the food and dining section at the New York Times – people think wine is fancy.

Look, I think you do a great job, but I’ve gone over this before. I understand why stories and headlines like this sneak into print. The “beer is the new wine” connection is easy. You have to sell papers and online subscriptions. You have to write stories (and especially headlines) that are easily digestible and will make someone stop and read. That’s not easy.

And I’m sure the reporter doesn’t spend all his time covering beer. He’s not as intimately familiar with beer history as someone like Jay Brooks. That’s OK.

But the context of the piece doesn’t excuse a lack of good reporting. Or the fact that it’s time to stop the beer-wine comparison and change things up.

It’s time to take a hint, editor! When “is beer the new wine?” stories pop up and beer writers far and wide complain, maybe think twice about your approach.

1904 ad for Bud in a large bottle. Via Jay Brooks on Flickr.

1904 ad for Bud in a large bottle. Via Jay Brooks on Flickr.

Sure, it’s easy for mass audiences to understand the idea that beer is “the new wine” because some recipes use exotic ingredients or people (gasp!) want to pair beer with food. But because it comes in large bottles? Well, sir/madam, beer has come in larger than 12-ounce bottles for over 100 years in the U.S. alone.

Maybe beer comes in big bottles because of bottle-conditioning tradition, like in Belgium. Or maybe it’s because people like variety in their beer vessel of choice. That whole beer in a can thing is doing OK, too. Like, $32.6 million in 2012 craft beer can sales OK.

While craft beer is made for people to enjoy, it’s also made to make money for the companies who brew it. If the market for large bottles – or cans for that matter – was problematic to the business, beer probably wouldn’t be sold in such a fashion.

So it’s OK that beer comes in big bottles. It’s OK that people want to share beer with friends.

Let’s just just get a little more inventive with those stories and headlines.

-30-

+Bryan Roth

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8 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: or A Few Words on … Beer vs. Wine, Round 2

  1. I can’t live the button-down life like you. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles. Sure, I might offend a few of the bluenoses with my cocky stride and musky odors – oh, I’ll never be the darling of the so-called “City Fathers” who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about “What’s to be done with this distribution of beer in larger than average bottles?” What indeed?

    • Someone in my townhouse development smashes a glass bottle near our mailboxes nearly every week. As soon as one week’s glass is cleaned up, it seems like another bottle is broken.

      There’s a lot of glass, so I can only assume it must be from a large bottle. Maybe they’re craft beer fans who just hate the environment. Or their neighbors. Or child safety.

  2. Hey, I agree. It’s really a non-issue. But as I am starting up a microbrewery in Sweden and talking to restaurants who want to sell my beer, there is another take. They want 12 oz bottles only. They don’t want kegs or larger bottles. And they (the slightly classier ones anyways) don’t want cans. Because with a 12 oz. bottle customers are more likely to buy two and not share. Larger bottles encourage sharing and only buying one. Thus they want normal size bottles so they can increase the chance of selling more bottles. Which also means they will buy more bottles too, but…

    It means I have to buy more bottles and labels and cases as well. Packaging the biggest cost after salaries (ingredients in making beer are virtually nothing in comparison). So I make less money by selling small quantity. And sadly, the major beer distributors own 99% of the restaurants in Sweden (Carlsberg, Pripps and Åbro), meaning they those companies bring in all the supplies, taps, decoration and even some financing and reduced costs for selling their brand of beer (if they meet certain selling goals though…). I’m not sure if this goes on in the US, but the 3 major beermakers have restaurants and pubs by the balls here. So it is difficult to get tap space for a small craft brewery. We also have an alcohol monopoly and they will only sell craft beers at the 3 close stores, so the rest of the country will not be able to try far off breweries’ beer unless they specifically order it through the monopoly. Interestingly, larger formats work better here though…

    Anyways, just another perspective. Small breweries are sometimes at the mercy of what their clients want from them and not always what they think is the best bottle for their products. More popular small breweries probably have a lot more leeway here. At least in Sweden there are much fewer popular, or larger, craft breweries. But we’re trying!

    • Kevin,

      This is wonderful insight and I really appreciate you sharing it.

      It’s a complicated issue, for sure, whether it’s here or elsewhere around the world. As I alluded to in my post (and you take the ball and run with it) there will always be the economic connection of all of this. If people are willing to buy large bottles, then why not provide that opportunity? Similarly, if you have to produce 12-ounce bottles to succeed – even if you’re somewhat “strong armed” into it – hopefully that will fit the bill.

      I believe there is a definite disconnect from many about what this all implies, however. The NY Times piece alludes that because US breweries are selling more large bottles, that equates to the “winification” of beer. But there’s also the case that there are more breweries than ever, so there will be more bottles than ever and, as you point out, larger bottles are sometimes economically viable for companies who are starting out. There’s a brewery here in the Triangle – Roth Brewing, no relation, unfortunately – that built their own mini bottling “line” when they opened a couple years ago. They only sell their beer on draft and in large bottles.

      There are certainly lots of variables to all of this, which is why I think it’s great you wanted to chime in. If you’re interested, here are a couple other posts that caught my eye recently that build on this discussion from Beervana (What’s Time Cost?) and the Mad Fermentationist (Craft Beer Bottle Sizes (revisited)).

      I think both are worthwhile additions for more to think about.

      Thanks so much for coming by to add to the conversation – cheers!

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