Friday, 1 April 2011

The Session #50: How do they make you buy beer?

A few weeks ago, I put forward my thoughts that the general lack of variety in German beer was not so much to do with the Reinheitsgebot as with the general conservativeness of the German public at large. Basically, despite the fact that the Reinheitsgebot allows for a massive variety of beer styles, they generally don’t go too far in Germany (and I acknowledge gratefully the likes of Altbier, Kölsch, Rauchbier and other regional specialties). But when there is something clearly different to the norm, how does the Brewery or beer seller try to tempt the regular German public to make that leap beyond Pils and Helles? Exclusivity seems to be the keyword, at least when the marketers are involved.

A little while ago, I mentioned Alpirsbacher Ambrosius, a German-brewed Belgian-style Tripel which, as one regional paper put it, was the most expensive German beer available. It was described as a “gourmet” beer, and much was made of the fact that cork and cages were used, presumably adding to the desired comparisons with wine. At €8.60 for 750ml, it’s not prohibitively expensive, and certainly not the most expensive German beer I’ve seen to date, with that honour belonging to the Schorschbräu 32 or 43, retailing at about €60 for 330ml. At least in that case, production was extremely limited, and a lot of materials and man-hours went into creating a one-off, but I digress. The point is, the exclusivity and “specialness” of Ambrosius were used to try and make people buy it. Although it disregards the fact that the Trappists were doing this for some time, bear in mind that it’s pretty hard to find such beers in German stores, so yes, in a way it’s “new” 'round these parts, and this apparent uniqueness in itself is a draw to purchase. Does it taste any good? Is it worth the cash? Well, time will tell, I’ve got two bottles of Ambrosius in the cellar, waiting for an opportune moment to blind taste against a Trappist beer and a few others, so at least that trapped me!

Really pushing all the exclusivity buttons is BraufactuM. Their website features a small selection of beers form Brooklyn, Marston’s, Birrificio Italiano, Birra Baladin, and their own BraufactuM label. It’s beautifully presented, with the menu split between “courses”, sumptuous images of the beers, tasting notes and detailed information on the ingredients. Really, this is the way beer information should be given, but the work that went into this could only be possible with the small selection presented. Put it this way, it really made me want to buy them all! But! The prices!

Their own label, brewed at an unknown location, includes some really great-looking beers, Indra, a Weizen India Pale Ale, Roog, a smoked Weizen and Darkon, a Schwarzbier, all relatively reasonably priced, while still oozing exclusivity due to the classy packaging (thanks to a friend, I tried all three of these two nights ago, but I’ll return to those in a later post). But I balk at paying €17.99 for a 330ml bottle of 13% Arrique barley wine (€54 per litre)! I mean, made with local ingredients, how can it be that expensive? That’s where style and exclusivity can stay out in the cold.

A case in point, and returning to Belgian-style Tripels in Germany: as it happens, Ambrosius wasn’t the first of this Belgian Tripel styles made in Germany. Another such is F.A Schäffler Triple, from Schäffler-Bräu a 10.5% beer, fermented with Trappist yeast, and costing €14 for 750ml in an Edeke supermarket. It fits the bill for exclusivity on price, and the branding does suggest a touch of classiness, with a little booklet explaiing the finer points. According to Ratebeer, Härte 10, is the very same beer, rebadged. The label of Härte 10 says it's 10%, uses Trappist yeast, and is decidedly crap looking, with a clipart kind of feel about it. Check out that cheesy diamond! On the back, it names Idar-Obersteiner-Bierspezialitaeten*, so, an own label of a beer handler in the middle of Rheinland-Pfalz, with no indication of the brewery, so presumably Ratebeer had some other information to go by. And the price of Härte 10? About €1.80 for 500ml. How’s that for an illustration of how the brand, the label, the exclusivity is meant to draw people in, and the more it can be ratcheted up , the more they expect people to pay.

But what is it like? If you weren't being swayed by the classy label, and the most advanced corking system you've ever seen (the Zork Cork), would it taste as good? Blind tasting time! Three of us put the F.A. Schäffler Triple against the Härte 10... well, Tripel.

Beer A for me had a broad, sweet, fruity aroma, I want to say lychees, but that sounds pretentious. Bubble gum, with aged red apples. The flavour is really candy-like, with pear drops and an amplified juicyfruit chewing gum and banana. Very sweet and sticky though.

Beer B was very similar in many of the core flavours, but different enough that we all noticed it. For me, it was a bit thinner, a little sharper, and had more brown sugar than a load of candy, and a pineapple like edge.

All in all, I preferred B. Though both shared common elements, I felt B was more refined, and because of that,  I declared that it was the more expensive of the two. I was wrong, and so was my colleague, Rüdiger.

If they are the same beer, and I think there was enough in common for me to believe that, I wonder what made them different. Age, storage, all of that could play a part. Maybe the batches that don't meet a standard get rebadged? The main thing is, if they are the same, how can this price differential be explained? I can only think it's the aura of exclusivity you're paying for, and that alone can be enough to make you want to buy a beer, despite being an otherwise clear-thinking human being.

And I have another bottle of each!

*Their website doesn't work, but they do list  Schäffler-Bräu


Anonymous said...

Hi Barry,

here's another fine example of exclusivity (never tasted it):

It is 19,95 Euros per 0,75 Bottle plus the batch is limited to the amount of hops they grow in a year. Packing and the fact that it comes from the island of Sylt where everything is expensive all add to the exclusivity.

As the average beer drinker consumes less beer every year I think the breweries have to focus on new target groups:
- women (low hop beers)
- children (Biermischgetränke)
- wine and champagne drinkers (exclusivity beers such as Sylter Hopfen and the ones you wrote about)

My interpretation: The German beer market is a-changing! We will have more really cheap and crappy mainstream beers on the one hand. And more but still very few interesting and/or good beers on the other. Of course the good stuff has to be much more expensive. That what most German quality brewers of today won't dare. So they lower quality standards to compete with the cheap stuff or perish.

The problem is, the brewers I know completely lack imagination. They don't understand what's going on in the rest of the world. They think too high about the Germanness of their beers. That's not gonna save them. Fools.

Just my 5 Eurocents.

Cheers, Philipp Overberg, not at all an anonymous person

Barry M said...

Thanks for the comments Philipp. An interesting, if grim, outlook.

The Sylter sounds interesting. See? they're sucking me in with all this fancy stuff already! I don't think I've had a German champagne beer before. Not sure I can (or would be allowed) to fork out for one though :)

Must meet up for a pint in MS in the next month or so.

Beeron said...

Ah, so Sylter Hopfen's a champagne beer... that's how they justify 20 notes? I wanna try it but I'd feel like I'd had my pocket picked.
Braufaktum's IPA and Scotch Ale are nice... I intend to try Hopfen-Fluch soon.
Hope it's true about more diverse styles, but the mentality of the German beer drinker is the biggest hurdle.