Thursday, April 16, 2009

Product (re) launch and beer (brand) documentaries

A day that begins with tropical fruit and ends with a pint of local beer is a day that is bound to be a bit odd. In my case, not odd so much as disparate. And, the distance between tropical fruit and local beer is not as great as some of the other activities, but let's look at the beer side of things.

Bridgeport Brewing re-launched their Hop Czar product this afternoon in fine fashion, though somewhat restrained compared to previous product launches which I attended, notably Ropewalk Amber Ale. Nonetheless, the brewery continues to show us how combining good products and professional marketing and brand management can make for a good consumer experience. Judging by the nearly packed house, a few other Portlanders agree.
Following that authentic experience, I attended the Beer Wars movie "event" at a local theater. My low expectations arose from the fact that the producer/director a) claimed familiarity with the beer "category" having been CEO of Mike's Hard Lemonade and b) doesn't (cannot) drink. The latter problem is not an issue, but someone whose experience resides with a kiddie drink that only competes against beer because it is nominally a malt beverage is perhaps not the most capable person to dissect the complex issues in beer competition.

The film's thesis seems to be that the big three, now the big two, are category crushing, brand behemoths who will do and say anything to remain the dominant breweries in the universe. Their rapacious behavior is aided and abetted by an out-of-date distribution system that the breweries support and cherish because it rewards them with the leverage they need.

The movie succeeds at a certain level with folks who have had little exposure to the craft brewing business. That is to say most folks regardless of their beer preferences. One could see a documentary like this from Frontline on PBS, but without the fawning over a very select number of craft brewing business owners who seem chosen for their on-camera capabilities. Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head are featured and, indeed, their owners are great in front of the camera. Interestingly, both companies seem to be succeeding quite well. Stone admits to an average 46% growth year-over-year since its inception. So, where is the threat if these guys do so well? Who is being harmed? It would have been useful to show the breweries that struggle against the three-tier system and are not nearly so successful.

The one odd bottle in the six pack, if you can excuse the metaphor, is Moonshot. This unlikely product, "premium" beer with caffeine, is the brand brainchild of Rhonda Kallman, one of the brains and brand builders behind Boston Beer and Sam Adams. By the end of the movie, my fellow movie goers were booing or calling her out, much as the Beer Advocate's Todd Alstrom does in the live panel discussion that concludes the event, for producing something that is technically beer, but hardly fits with the craft brewing industry. Sure, she knows all about building brands, but what, exactly, is in that bottle and why should we care? Is adding caffeine to a contract brewed light beer anything like a complex, rich beer made by the same person that is trying to get the distributor to carry it? The audience, and this author, say no.

Ultimately, Beer Wars is a reasonable distraction, sort of like the Hammerhead I enjoyed after the movie. But, it doesn't satisfy in the way Hop Czar did or the cask-conditioned Blue Heron I enjoyed while watching the band and dancers at the Bridgeport Brewpub.