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Elitism, Marketing and Original 16

It appears that Great Western Brewing’s new commemorative beer, Original 16, is creating some controversy in the beer world. A week or so ago, the Calgary Herald’s Jason Van Rassel reviewed the beer (find it here), and on his way took a big swipe at beer geeks that has a number of beer bloggers hot under the collar. The offending passage is his opening paragraph, which reads:

“These days, a brew doesn’t impress the beer snobs unless it’s aged in 300-year-old bourbon barrels or is bitter enough to shred your palate. On that basis, Original 16 Canadian Pale Ale likely won’t impress the elitists -but it’s a smooth, refreshing beer for the rest of us.”

The quote does seem unnecessarily antagonistic, and the use of the word “elitist” is rather insulting (and I won’t comment on the clumsy and wildly inaccurate hyperbole of 300-year-old bourbon barrels), I kept mute, though, not wishing to increase the volume. However, last week I also received a media package from Great Western. It was impressive. A custom crafted box with a bottle, a can and a glass nestled in black satin inside.The ornate packaging is warranted, as the beer has been made to honour the founding 16 owners, who 20 years ago bravely led a buy-out of the closing Molson plan in Saskatoon, thus saving both hundreds of jobs and a brewing tradition in Saskatchewan. They are fully deserving of beer fans’ respect and admiration.
The accompanying bumpf promised a singularly unique beer experience. It spoke of “using the very best 100% two-row barley”, “carefully selecting and blending” five “choice hop varietals”, and using a “unique double-aged process”. The closing line boasts “Original 16 is the only premium beer that truly delivers what matters to Western Canadian beer drinkers.” It calls itself a Canadian Pale Ale that is “highly refreshing, perfectly balanced and exceptionally smooth”. Wow. That is big talk. How does the beer hold up?

I used the supplied glass, both for the photo opportunity and because it seemed fitting, but at 20 ounces it is bigger than the volume of either the can or the bottle. I opted for the 16 ounce can to maximize the glass space. It pours a sparkling bright yellow and has a wispy white head that drops to an even blanket that persists through the sipping. Carbonation is quite high, more lager-like than ale. The aroma gives off a light, crisp malt note that reminds me of pilsner malt. There is also some grassiness and very little hop aroma. It has a light and very clean aroma. If find the beer has a rounded malt sweetness and just a touch of hops in the linger to create a sense of balance. But malt is the lead actor here and it is soft and earthy. A touch of fruit lingers in the background.

It is not a complex beer, but it does have an attractive flavour. It reminds me of a Munich helles or a clean blonde ale. It is light, delicate and satisfying in its own kind of way. It is not a pale ale by any stretch of the imagination, but it offers an interesting flavour approach.

But here is where I take issue both with Great Western and Van Rassel. There is no shame in making an honest, smooth beer that is both well-crafted and accessible. Just don’t try to sell it to me as some kind of never-before-seen miracle of beeriness. To be honest, I think Great Western’s marketing people went overboard on this one, to the detriment of the beer’s reception. The storyline of the 16 workers saving the plant is strong enough to stand on its own. They don’t need to persuade me that this is a revolutionary new beer. The beer is all-barley and uses five hop varieties. That is nice, but not earth-shattering. Don’t sell it like you were the first to ever consider doing that. The “double-aging” is real (they do a standard secondary for seven days, and then hold the beer at -1.5 Celsius for 24 days), but over-stated. That lagering period is why the beer tastes so clean and lager-like. But again it is not new. This beer is not a pale ale, so please don’t call it that. You do yourself a disservice and sell your customers short by doing so.

I suspect that last paragraph might lead Van Rassel to accuse me of being elitist. That is his right. But I believe fervently that pushing our breweries to operate on a higher standard is a good thing for ALL beer drinkers and not just the “beer snobs”. No one would dare use merlot grapes and call their wine a Cabernet Sauvignon. So why should beer people put up with the bastardization of traditional beer styles? Why should we mutely accept .hyperbolic sales pitches crafted by marketing people whose job it is to push beer, not appreciate it?

I think what I take exception to in Van Rassel’s characterization is that the beer world can be easily divided into two camps – the elites and the “rest of us”. I think Van Rassel does a disservice to ALL beer drinkers with his categorizations. While the snobs and elitists are getting upset at him in their blogs, I think the average Joe six pack has more reason to be insulted – as Van Rassel seems to be suggesting they don’t care about what they drink, or how it is presented to them. I think beer drinkers are smarter than that.

I don’t think I am all that different than any other person who likes beer. I enjoyed my glass of Original 16, I really did. Judging it on its own merits, I speak warmly of it. But their marketing people essentially misled me, and I feel mistreated as a result. I think any consumer would feel the same way if the discovered they were misled.

One final note. I respect Great Western in large part due to their honesty. They understand in which part of the market they work, and normally don’t pretend to be doing anything other than what they are doing – making locally-owned, mass consumption beer. And I applaud them for that. I would rather they get market share than the company from whom they had to buy the plant. Which means I think I can gently admonish them when they make a mistake and allow their marketing people to get ahead of their beer people.

I fail to see how any of that would make me an elitist. But I might be wrong. I suggest everyone buy a bottle of Original 16 and make up your own mind on how it is as a beer.

 

11 comments to Elitism, Marketing and Original 16

  • Chad

    Well worth the read, and I totally agree with all of your points.

  • I disagree that this beer is anything close to a Munich Helles, nor do I believe it is all malt, but that is just my opinion.

    Great Western is good at what they do, and kudos to them and all they have accomplished. But the bottom line is that I don’t like false claims and marketing hyperbole of any kind. It is insulting to the consumer, no matter how elite or low brow they may be.

    • Hi Mark,

      I can see you don’t like the beer, which is cool. I may have overstated the connection to Munich helles – it doesn’t have enough soft malt to hit that note – but it did remind me of a pale German lager more than a pale ale. I do think it is all-barley – they just didn’t add much (or any?) specialty malts to give it more character. And you can add as many variety of hops as you want, but if the total volume doesn’t add up to a significant IBU, then it is a waste of hops. Also, I agree (obviously) with your reaction to the marketing.

      Thanks for posting. I always appreciate your take on things. In particular because you can disagree with me but still remain respectful and good beer-positive.

      Cheers!

  • Squared

    I kept hearing about this beer on the radio, and in the same marketing manner you described. I was excited. I tried it. NOT a pale ale. I would consider this the best that GW has put out in recent memory, but it was like a better made macro-lager, a bit better malt profile. All my friends (bless thier hearts) don’t know a lot about beer, (and this is slowly changing) but after having a few Alley kat Pale Ales last summer, even they weren’t fooled when I gave them a sip. We like to go to Sherbrooke and buy a variety and try each others for the record. So, even “the rest of us” were actually fooled.

  • Jason van Rassel

    Hi Jason,

    I ran across this while doing my real job (crime reporter at the Herald) and wanted to respond not with fightin’ words, but with a sincere expression of appreciation for what you said. We’ve exchanged kind words before, and I don’t take the above criticism personally. In fact, I feel rather contrite that I’ve run afoul of someone whose opinions on beer I respect and thought I’d explain.

    First, I wrote the offending paragraph as a shameless attention-grabber. I’m not saying that makes it right, but I do want to explain that I find the “capsule review” format challenging and I took some licence to stir the pot and get people reading.

    Second, you may recall that I used to write a beer blog for the Herald until about three years ago. I gave it up because it was difficult to maintain on top of my regular duties at the Herald. I have to admit at the time I was also growing tired of hyper-critical, nitpicking comments and emails I was starting to get from a small cabal of beer snobs. (Despite posting anonymously, it was obvious to me one of the most persistent haters was another writer who resented not having a platform in the Herald himself.) I wanted the blog to have a populist feel, and was quite clear I was neither a homebrewer nor a BJCP-certified judge — just a guy who really enjoys beer and had become an enthusiast. I made a few mistakes, to be sure, but the majority of the vitriol I received were comments about esoteric, hair-splitting things. It’s petty of me, but I admit I wrote what I did as a bit of an “eff you” to the blog haters. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to do a disservice to the wider readership by being a smartass.

    I’ve continued to write capsule reviews for the Herald as new and seasonal beers come out, and I’d like to think they’re focused on the beer — as they should be. Now that I’ve found your blog, I plan to keep reading and hope we can share a pint one of these days.

    Cheers,
    Jason van Rassel

    • Hi Jason,

      Thank you for the comment. I sincerely appreciate your willingness to discuss the issue. And thank you for offering some context about your thinking when you wrote the piece. And I want to offer my own mea culpa (see below).

      I will say I found your capsule review to be oddly out of character, and it did perturb me somewhat. I did plan on say nothing but, as I mention in the post, the marketing of the beer really bugged me. Now for my mea culpa.

      Re-reading the piece I believe I failed to properly credit you for your work and perspective on beer. When you were doing them, I followed your online posts and appreciated them. You struck me as a true fan of good beer, and a very good writer. In hindsight, I needed to inform the reader more fully of who you were and that I believed the review to be out of character. It is an omission I regret, as I think it reads too harshly against you (regarding the beer, however, I think I got the balance right).

      It is one of the great challenges of being a writer (a label you deserve much more than I) – in the moment one writes with passion, voice and verve but then your words live on far past the initial moment. Occasionally they come back to cause regret. It happens to all writers – especially in the blog/capsule review format.

      Thank you for your willingness to express your second thoughts, and I am glad you continue to feel that my efforts have some value. I would like to share some beer with you sometime.

      Cheers.

      Jason

  • Just thought that I would drop you a note correcting some inaccuracies.

    Your statements “It is not a pale ale by any stretch of the imagination” and “This beer is not a pale ale, so please don’t call it that.” are inaccurate. It is, in fact, a ‘Canadian’ pale ale, which is more accurate than calling Nova Scotia’s product an IPA. Not an IPA, or even an APA, but a CPA. Bastardization of traditional styles? I would prefer to call it the evolution of traditional styles. As a BTW, it should be consumed as cold as possible, as the formulation loses its impact very quickly as it warms up. And the draught version is, of course, even better. It is in Alberta test markets now, but should be a common sight come the New Year.

    As for the story behind it, please go to http://original16.com for a documentary style narrative.

    In “Great Western Honours Its Origins” and “Prairie Beer”, I must correct the impression that management and the union were involved. It was simply 15 unionized workers, and one ex-manager. No management, sales staff or admin staff took part in the purchase. At the time, management attempted to dissuade us from even considering the purchase as they were concerned about their severance packages and pensions! The union was also very leery of us investing our severances into a perceived white elephant.

    And Molsons did not buy out Carling-O’Keefe. It was a merger, a new company being formed, with the name Molson retained for name recognition.

    But I do want to thank you for the kind words about the company and our beer. I sometimes find it hard to believe that it has been 22 years since we started on this journey. And it has always been about the beer.

    – Gregory (Greg) Kitz (#1 of the Original 16)

    • beerguy

      Gregory,

      First I want to thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts. I appreciate that you take my ramblings seriously enough to spend some of your valuable time writing.

      Thank you for correcting some of the details about the brewery’s origins. I have heard many versions of the story (including some that say you are a worker coop), and so it is good to hear directly from the source (or at least one of the 16 sources…). I will correct the entry on the Prairie Beer page.

      I also agree that the certain Halifax brewer who claims to make an IPA is one of the most egregious insults to beer drinkers. I have written about my irritation about that many times.

      However, I will stand by my position on calling Original 16 a pale ale. I hear that you consider it a Canadian Pale Ale, which is fair enough. However, that doesn’t necessarily let you off the hook. I appreciate styles evolve (and have written as much in other posts), and so beer people need to be open to new interpretations and experimentation. I like to think I do a good job in that respect.

      However, styles are not created out of the blue. Just because someone decides to name a beer something, doesn’t make it a real style. Styles are rooted in history, geography and technological innovation. While they may change over time, they arise out of an organic coalescence. Take Cascadian/Black IPA for example. It arose out of a regional proclivity to make a darker, more balanced IPA. It is on the verge of being a full style because many regional craft brewers played with it over the past 20 years.

      My point is that Canadian Pale Ale has no reference in Canada’s brewing history. What are its common features? How is it different than other Pale Ales? And, importantly, how is it related to other Pale Ales (which it needs to be to merit the name)?

      In Original 16 you have made a good beer. I enjoyed it when I drank it. But in no way would I include it in the Pale Ale family, however loosely defined. And I don’t think it needs that name to be appreciated. In fact, I think the style debate has been a distraction to what is a beer that can stand on its own.

      I know I sit in the privileged position of being able to sample and judge. I don’t have to sell beer for a living. I respect your business acumen and consider myself a supporter of your brewery, for a number of reasons. But on this one, I think you over-reached. And you didn’t need to. You could have sold the beer for what it is. Which is what I articulated.

      I am really glad you engaged my position openly and encourage you to keep reading and calling me to task when you think I deserve it. I am a big boy and am happy to admit when I am wrong. I look forward to your next effort at a craft beer.

  • Hi – I’m not a beer expert but I love beer. I don’t get much variety or quality beer here where I live (Southern coastal Indian city of Cochin) and other than the Indian brands Kingfisher, Haywards, London Strong and the few international brands like Fosters, Tuborg & Carslberg, I haven’t tasted any. All these Canadian macro & craft beers make my mouth water. I like the overall look of Great Western and would someday love to taste a few.
    Till I make it there, cheers and keep drinking good beer.

  • Marc

    Hi Jason,
    I like your comments on your review of Original 16. I think I agree with nearly everything you state.

    I totally agree that the beer is a great beer and I also believe that creating style confusion is a disservice to all beer fans.

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