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Good, Cheap Beer?

Honesty in Advertising

My most recent column in Planet S/Prairie Dog is sparking some controversy in the flat province (you can read it here). A while back my editors asked if I might do a piece on cheap beer (what the producers of those brands call “the value segment”). I hummed and hawed for a while since as a beer guy, I don’t spend a whole lot of time dealing in the discount end of the market. But they persisted and I finally relented.

As this is an article for two Saskatchewan papers, I focused on what was available in that province (which means Drummond and others who would otherwise deserve mention were omitted). I defined cheap beer as selling for less than $2 per bottle. The main macro brands run between $2.10 and $2.50 a bottle in Saskatchewan, so I wanted to capture brands that were intentionally aiming for the price conscious consumer.

I worked hard to make it clear I was not endorsing these beer, arguing that to get the price point down inevitably requires compromises on ingredients and process. However, not all cheap beer are created equal, and so I tried to point readers to some better examples of brands available.

Figuring high on that list is Great Western Brewing. Excluding their Original 16 series which is legitimately more craft-y, they generally play around  in the value segment, as they own a large brewhouse and need to move quite a bit of beer to keep it economical. I also toss in Molson’s Old Style Pilsner, despite the misnomer style name, as I have always felt it is a step up from some of the other discount options out there. I also make the decision to scare people off Minhas products. For readers of this site it is no mystery that I am not favourably inclined to Minhas due to their marketing practices and low beer quality.

It appears this may have been a column that pleased no one. I have gotten some WTF comments from craft beer fans in province, while Minhas is none too pleased with me either. My editor says that Great Western wants to talk to me, as well. I am not sure why but my editor ominously suggests people don’t call when they are pleased. We are currently playing email tag.

Rather than scurry away and let the column fade from memory I am choosing to re-post it here. All I will say in my defense is that the so-called value segment is a valid and sizable portion of the beer market. Sure, it may not be beer for the experienced beer aficionado, but the world does not revolve around beer geeks. I figure if I can point beer consumers to locally made, relatively better quality beer than I am doing the beer world a favour. The men and women in this segment are very price aware. They simply won’t buy a beer that is three or four dollars a bottle. It is an exercise of meeting your audience from where they are, rather than where  you prefer them to be.

Plus, in the coming months I am planning a couple of columns focusing on “transition beer”, beer that can take the value segment (or pale lager) drinker, when they are ready, from Old Style Pils or Canadian or Rickard’s Red to something more fully craft. That seems the next natural step.

For now I will take my lumps and drop any expectations of getting a Christmas card from Minhas this year.

13 comments to Good, Cheap Beer?

  • Ernie

    The editor asked for it, the editor got it. He should be the one responding to the criticism, not you. Don’t know why Great Western would be displeased, other than being lumped in an article with Minhas. It’s a good thing that I’m not a beer writer, I would have been far less flattering than you were.

  • If Minhas offers to play beer hunter with you, they are likely talking the most dangerous game, not Bob and Doug. Run! :)

  • Brewhouse Pilsner has long been my go-to buck a beer, for flavour (what there is of it), stackability (those cans fit in my cooler so well) and honesty (remember the “Hangover in every case” campaign?)

    I hope that GWB hasn’t misconstrued your intent here, especially since (for beer nerds) your article was relatively flattering to them.

  • Exceedingly fair and even-handed column. Minhas deserves every bit of scorn it gets precisely because it tries to dress up its beers as “craft” when they so clearly aren’t. If Minhas dropped its pretensions (actually, more like delusions) people would be far more apt to accept the beers for what they are, which is cheaply- and poorly-made cheap beer.

  • Mel

    You’re a beer critic; that means you provide your honest opinion on all sorts of products. You’re not there to pander to anyone, especially big corporate interests – but if you decide to review some cheapies too there’s no reason for craft fans to get mad either. After all, you were obviously stepping away from your regular audience for a minute, to address the majority of beer drinkers out there. Really not a big deal.

    I hope your editor stands by your side and doesn’t let the corporate guys run roughshod over this. If the piece pissed them off, good – it means it hit a nerve because you were on to something very real. (i.e. their beer sucks) I guess they’ve also never heard that old adage, how there’s no such thing as bad press – for which this column, arguably, doesn’t even qualify.

  • In defence of American Standard Lager –

    When it is done well, it is as legitimate and worthy a style as any other, and much more challenging to brew well than most. Vast fortunes have been built manufacturing and selling this beer, not because everyone is stupid but because many people enjoy drinking it. It is unchallenging, inexpensive and effective at its designated tasks of taking the edge off the day, washing the grass clippings or camp fire smoke out of your mouth and putting out the fire that the curry left in your mouth.

    When it is done badly, it is very bad, but when it is done well, it has its place. Just because it is not beer geek approved does not mean it should not be taken as seriously as any other beer.

    • I totally agree with you, though I don’t *think* Jason was dumping on American Standard Lagers. Like you, I don’t think appreciating craft beer and enjoying a good lager are mutually exclusive. During my first run blogging about beer at the Herald 6-7 years ago, I called the blog “Lager Blogger” to project respect for lagers — not every beer needs to be “extreme” to be good. I would argue anyone calling themselves a beer geek likes lagers, too. Just my own opinion, but I’d say dissing lagers moves someone out of “geek” territory and into snobbery.

  • mark

    I will gladly drink a Great Western Pilsner or two. It stands head and shoulders above anything comparable.

    I disagree with the recommendation for Old Style Pilsner, it is horrendous, on par with typical Molson Canadian. I strongly encourage using Canadian in a sensory tasting session of some sort; evaluate it ice cold, but don’t finish your sample. Move onto some other beers, and then come back to it once it has warmed up close to room temp. It becomes a cornucopia of crazy weird off flavours, see how many you can pick out!

    Calgary and Bohemian have the been the beer of choice for the budget conscious punk rock crowd in SK for many years; they kinda have a similar hipster cred as PBR does in the states. They are maginally better than Old Style Pilsner.

    Speaking of PBR, the stuff sold in Canada is made by Sleeman. It tastes nothing like the US version, which is actually decent for budget beer. Anyone remember when Great Western had the Canadian license/contract to brew PBR? I used to buy it in the mid-90s and thought it was good.

    Anyways, if I was the writer, I would have just said “drink Great Western Pilsner if you are a cheap bastard,” but that wouldn’t have made for much of an article…

  • beerguy

    Thanks, everyone, for the supportive words. It is good to know readers of this website have a sophisticated understanding of the beer world – and are even willing to admit they dabble in the value market when needed/appropriate. I really didn’t mean to come across as if I was upset by the reaction. I am fine with it. I am a big boy and I know my job well. The editors didn’t force me into anything, I wrote the column of my own free volition. They often make suggestions. I try to accommodate but often reject because it doesn’t fit for some reason. That is why I openly discuss it – they are my words and I stand by them.

    I simply found the reaction interesting. For the record, Minhas did not contact me but I heard through a source that they saw the article and were grumbl-y about it. I still haven’t connected with GWB so I can’t assume what is happening on their end. I will update once I have spoken with them.

    Cheers!

  • Chris

    Good article Jason. There will always be a place for cheap beer. I don’t want to drink craft brew on the chairlift (and I only want cans), I want something cold and refreshing. Same thing at the campsite. Great Western fits the bill perfectly, and I’ll be trying Brewhouse this summer as well.

  • Wes Bray

    Not sure if it qualifies as cheap but I personally drink a fair amount of Heineken (can only).

  • I mentioned it to you in an email, but also wanted let your readers know that we also have Olympia in the ‘Value’ segment. To tell you the truth, I choose Oly once in a while when I need a good thirst quencher in the summer. If you haven’t tried it lately, Viv has done a splendid job of reformulating it.

    • I guess I have a new Value Beer to try this summer, I never realized that Olympia was GWB. I think that I may have to do my own “Value Beer” tasting event – something that I have been pondering for years but have never gotten around to.

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