Microbrews Battle for Survival

There's something bold about beer. Admit it. Ending the day with a cold one (or beginning it, for that matter) makes you think of bikers guzzling from dirty glasses like the stuff is water, or some thirsty Scottish traveller parking it at a pub, smelling of horse sweat and keeping a hand near his weapon. Maybe beer reminds you of college days and crazy games like drawing fake chalk outlines around campus at midnight. Maybe it just makes you feel one step closer to some vague but exciting place you would like to be, someplace other than in your living room watching this episode of Friends for the umpteenth time. Somewhere along the line you learned to like the taste, and you recognize it as the taste of adventure.So why in the world are you too chicken to stray far from your beloved Bud or Michelob or Pabst?OK, so maybe not you personally, but the average beer drinker, according to one report, tends to stick with "his" brand, and a taste he knows he can count on. Like hanging out with an old friend he's known since his youth, as opposed to trying to buddy up to flashier types he may not feel comfortable with.That's why time is growing short for all these specialty beers and "microbrews" you hear about. "Right now it's a growing market," says Fred Cadle, branch manager for AB Beverage, distributor of Anheuser-Busch products, in Augusta. But, he adds, "I think their popularity will wane in the next few years."Before we go any further, let's decide exactly what we're talking about. A microbrewery was originally what the name implies -- a small brewery, generally one that produced 15,000 or fewer barrels annually. But when we started referring to the beer itself as a "microbrew," the meaning shifted. For example, that bottle of Samuel Adams you're squeezing right now may still be referred to as a microbrew, even though the company has outgrown the category and, according to Doug Herman of Beverage South, is brewed all over. (Beverage South distributes Miller, Coors and Seagrams Coolers.)Other small beer companies have tried to do the same, but they have a tragic flaw. Microbrews, no matter how good they may taste, simply have too much going against them. Cadle says that, while some of the older micro companies have climbed into the national arena, the old, established companies simply have both money and name recognition on their side. That doesn't mean, though, that you'll wake up one morning and the only thing left on the shelves will be Bud, Michelob and Pabst. Cadle says there will always be new beers, but that the sheer numbers of fancy flavors competing for the attention of the few people out there who actually drink them on a regular basis will starve out that market segment like an overpopulated herd of deer.Herman agrees. He doesn't think the speciality beers phenomenon is a fad, just that the market is glutted. "Trade reports say don't buy into the microbrew stock," he warns, and alludes to the clear malt thing of a few years ago. If you check out the supermarket shelves, it looks like Zima is the sole survivor, and that makes sense. When you get a taste for something like Zima, doesn't it make sense to just drink Zima? I mean, how many variations on that theme do we need?And Herman should know. He had to discontinue his own Belle of Georgia brand a few months ago, but plans to offer it during family holidays.Sources agree that it's difficult for microbrews to make it into stores, because store owners would rather give the shelf space to their tried-and-true sellers. And because not that many people drink something like a raspberry-flavored wheat beer in the first place, bottles can stay on the shelves a long time and become stale. Therefore, if someone is trying a certain flavor for the first time, their first impression might be of a stale brew.Don't despair, though. All things new and interesting are not destined to fail. Remember when "lite" beers first edged their way into public awareness? Herman says they're here to stay. They're probably not even considered a specialty beer anymore, they've been around so long.And that's another thing. While we can all agree that Bud, Michelob and Pabst are basic beers, just what does qualify as a "specialty" beer? Honey brown? Herman doesn't think so. He doesn't think Killian's Irish Ale is a speciality brand, either, and he agrees that it is hard to identify what a "craft" beer is.Sources say that a "craft" beer is sometimes brewed using an all-malt recipe, whereas a "specialty" beer is one made with special ingredients and brewing processes. Specialty beers are supposed to be "rich" and "full-bodied." And since a "microbrew" is no longer simply a beer produced by a small brewery, any serious discussion of beers will have to include some such drawing of parameters.Another strike against bottled speciality beers is the brew pub, which creates an atmosphere that makes customers want to try their house brands, which probably satisfies people's desire for something new. And the brew pubs idea seems to be off to a good start here in Augusta. Just ask Terry Baker of King George Pub and Aiken Brewing Company co-owner Dan Beavers.Terry started brewing a little over a year ago, and offers four flavors right now, with a wheat beer on the way. Though he doesn't believe in talking down about other beers or in trying to wrest a drinker away from his favorite brand, Terry does feel that setting aside your old faithful now and again will enrich people's enjoyment of all the pleasures beer has to offer. "Beer is very much an experience," he says. Because he feels that not trying new beers limits people's enjoyment of it, he facilitates his customers' experimentation by offering 5-ounce samplers so that people can taste something new without committing to a whole pint.Some people don't see the point in trying different beers, because they figure, if you've tasted one, you've tasted them all. But sitting down with a set of samplers can show your mouth the differences in beer personalities. For instance, their Bertha's Best Bitter, named after Hurricane Bertha, has a nice, smokey aftertaste, where the India Pale Ale is smoother. The Imperial Stout is more full-bodied and dark, yet the Red Coat Ale, also dark, tastes mild and sweet.He agrees that certain types of beers tend to appeal to certain types of people. Raspberry wheat tends to be most appreciated by younger women, where India Pale Ale attracts people who already enjoy beer. Red ale is a good choice for people who don't really consider themselves beer drinkers or who are out to try something different. And then you have the stout drinkers. Stout is definitely a beer drinker's beer.Are these specialty beers? Depends on where you're standing when you ask that question, because Terry says these are some pretty standard English beers.Beavers, who opened Aiken Brewing Company on St. Patrick's Day, does consider his five brews specialties. His Chocolate Oatmeal Stout is a dark beer brewed with roasted malts, with a taste that hints at chocolate or coffee. The Pale Ale, Beavers compares to Sierra Nevada pale ale, which is a microbrew. He also offers a Brown Ale, a Honey Wheat and a Raspberry Wheat. "A lot of microbrewers have what they call fruit-flavored beers," he says. Of the Raspberry Wheat, he says, "People who don't drink beer can drink this."He says that some of the microbrewers have been able to form partnerships with large beer companies so that they can benefit from the larger companies' ability to distribute their products. It seems reasonable at this point to suppose that beer drinkers are witnessing a sort of Darwinian struggle between the brews. While many new beers are emerging from the sludge and evolving, survival of the fittest is still the rule, and mass extinctions are inevitable.


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