Friday, October 31, 2008

Two Surprising Finds That Could Still Disappoint

Anyone can find a good beer buried among the hundreds of relatively unknown tiny breweries that populate the Great American Beer Festival.

But discovering two gems hidden in plain sight among the megabreweries that receive mostly scorn at America's premier beer event? That's a trick.

Yet, tasting Budweiser's American Ale and Blue Moon's Farmhouse Belgian-Style Saison Ale left me both giddy with excitement and disappointed. I was surprised to find two beers worth drinking from companies more know for, as Stone Brewing Owner Greg Koch puts it, fizzy yellow beer. But I was also struck by the thought that brewers who can make these treats still spend most of their time on mass-manufactured crap and, in Blue Moon's case, even hide their talent.

Anheuser-Busch released its American Ale on Sept. 15. At $7.29 a six pack (at least that's what I just paid an hour ago), it is pricier than A-B's usual line of beers, but that is for a reason.

American Ale, an amber-style ale 18 months in the work in A-B's pilot brewery, is an effort to jump on the roaring train that is craft brewing. While all beer sales have risen by only 0.4 percent so far in 2008 - and sales of "premium" labels like Bud, Miller, Michelob and Coors are actually down, according to the Craft Brewers Association - craft beer sales are up 6.5 percent.

Thus, American Ale was designed to be the starter beer for the evening, explained Eric Beck, the brewer with A-B's new products group who developed its recipe. The theory is that people will want to start with something slightly bigger and more daring before they go back to Bud or Bud Light at the end of the night, he explained.

I had to take issue with Steve Presley, A-B's Fort Collins brewmaster, when he said that people will come to this beer because they know the quality behind the Budweiser name. Mullet-sheathed, Bud Light guzzlers are going to be scared away by a beer with this kind of full caramel color, and people who might try a microbrewed amber ale will be wary just because this is churned out by the same people who make Bud.

But here's the thing: The beer's pretty good. It follows the amber ale style almost to the letter of the guidebook (Beck listed that as a goal), and the caramel malts combined with a four-hop brew plus a Cascade dry-hopping make this subtle and pleasant. I'm a beer snob and I readily admit I don't want to drink anything made by a brewery bigger than Boston Beer. But if you put this in a glass and hand it to another beer snob without telling them it's from a megabrewery, I'll bet they actually enjoy it.

This is not necessarily a beer I'd have to start the evening, as I told Beck when we met. But after a couple of monster-hopped pales or puckery Belgian sours, this does make a nice nightcap: Pleasant, well-crafted, but not overwhelming. Bravo, Eric.

Now the trick is: Will A-B support it? The company had a big roll-out party at the GABF and flooded the first few weeks of football telecasts with commercials about its new baby, but I haven't seen a lot lately. If it's serious about producing beer that reaches more than the lowest common denominator - and Beck said it's considering beers of this quality in other styles - than it needs to put its money where our taste buds are.

Blue Moon, meanwhile, just needs to get off the can and start putting its best beers forward. And it needs to start with its saison.

I would never have discovered this treat except that I struck up a conversation with one of their sales reps over at a different booth at the GABF. When he told me Blue Moon had a great beer at its stand, I was more than a little skeptical. This is, after all, the company whose constantly changing winter ales I have described simply as "unpleasant death by caramel."

But sure enough, one pour of the saison convinced me that this brewer knew what the hell he was doing. The combination of Belgian yeast, rye, wheat, oats, corn, flax and sunflower was sharply refreshing, a light but sweet spring beer that ranked to me with, if not above, beers like New Belgium's that are some of the state's best saisons.

Excited by the prospect of cracking some of this open for an early-season barbecue, I asked the company rep in the booth when I could find this in stores. Her answer, given in a sheepish fashion, was that she had no idea, since the company's marketers aren't convinced this can sell enough to make it profitable.

And this is where I call on Blue Moon - and any other megabreweries that insist on selling beers that fit into neat little focus-group formulas rather than beers that actually break the mold - to think about what it's doing. Its beers are drank now by people who might have one or two at a party or buy one at a festival because it looks cool but aren't dedicate like the drinkers of any of the hundreds of craft breweries that are willing to take chances. Trust the intelligence of beer drinkers, and you'll find the market expanding to people who will go back despite a recession and pay for beer that will give them flavor and make them feel good. If you don't do that, you'll just remain a minor megabrewery whose fortunes could go south with the economy.

Ah, the agony and the ecstasy of finding hidden gems in giant locations. I hope such findings continue.

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