A Competition to Ponder

In 1985 Chicago Tribune writer Jay Pridmore described a tasting of numerous Midwest beers.

Two panels did the judging, one of “professionals” – restaurant managers, wine writers, a brewery owner, Fred Huber of Huber Brewery – and the other composed of ordinary drinkers who liked beer, a lawyer, architect, etc.

There are numerous interesting results, for example, Huber did not identify his own beer, called it “musty”, and elected a competitor as best in its class, Hamm’s. (Still, his terminology is interesting, e.g. “bready” was a pre-Prohibition term to describe the staleness resulting from excess or improper pasteurization).

Pridmore noted as well:

Because the super premiums are brewed with high-quality ingredients but for mainstream tastes, one might have thought that these beers would garner high scores. Interestingly, in both tastings, the super premiums did no better than the lower priced premiums. True, the tasters in both groups, amateur and professional, detected “richer color,“ “good aroma,“ and “hoppier“ and “full tasting“ flavor. But the word “bitter“ was used by several to describe either flavor or aftertaste.

The same surprising result was true in the amateur tasting.

Schlitz won in the premium class. Augsburger won in the super-premium.

Numerous reputed super-premiums didn’t make the taste-off, such as Michelob, Erlanger, Stroh Signature.

In the “boutique” class, being the emerging microbrewery beers, Rhomberg Pale Ale got the nod, from Dubuque, Iowa. The Rhomberg tasted was all-malt and clearly was felt to be what is now called a craft beer.

While this is one poll and subject to all the limitations inherent in that, the failure of the super-premiums to trump the premiums bears out what I discussed in my last post: the so-called Third Taste just didn’t have a wide-enough appeal. Too many wanted the usual taste, e.g., one taster, in the professional class too, praised Miller High Life because it was “low-hop” – or found the super-premiums too bitter. This was said of Lowenbrau as one example, by then brewed for some years in the U.S.

One might think the super-premiums would have stood out as gateways, to use today’s term: not so. This makes sense though, otherwise the craft segment that now has upwards of 15% of U.S. beer volume never would have got there.

This is not to say of course some super-premiums didn’t make money for the brewers. Michelob always did. I mentioned recently Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve on the west coast. But even their volumes were never close to mainstay brands such as PBR, Miller High Life, Budweiser, Busch, Coors, and similar. The others were niche products.

The super-premiums would have done far better IMO had they emulated closely the “Second Taste” (European), as American craft brewers did. I’m referring mainly to the large brewers and numerous of the regionals but not all. No question the Saranac beers in Utica, NY, say, are genuine craft, but F.X. Matt was unlikely to grow even with that success to the level of a Anheuser-Busch or Miller. Yuengling is perhaps a similar example, of Latrobe, PA and (now) elsewhere.

While it is true the craft segment took 40 years to get to a c. 15% share, I’m sure Anheuser-Busch would have liked to have a piece of that market, it still means lots of profits, especially now when their North American sales continue to slide (same for Molson Coors). Did their 1980s-1990s execs read Michael Jackson, did they make beer at home, attend the early beer festivals…? If their brewers raised the alarm, did anyone listen to them?

In this regard, I’m not sure how often the brewers spoke up as so many were attuned to the style of beer made for generations in North America. I once met a man who had worked decades ago for a large brewer in marketing. He told me, he once said to the company’s brewers, why don’t you make a product like the little microbreweries are making? They told him: “We make the beer, you sell it”.

But finally large breweries saw how craft products were appealing to a broader demographic than beer nerds. That’s when they started to buy craft breweries in earnest.

Note: Sadly, Rhomberg in Dubuque and Milwaukee didn’t make it, the brewery closed not that long after the story mentioned. Probably they were, as so many early crafts, ahead of their time. The brewery started up again a couple of times after but finally closed for good about 20 years ago.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the invaluable brewery history and label website, www.taverntrove.com. Image appears for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the image resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcome.








5 thoughts on “A Competition to Ponder”

  1. Sorry for the late contribution, just catching up after a hectic return to work.

    I can’t answer your question re: brewery execs of the 80s/90s and Michael Jackson, but I can relate the following experience.

    The Master Brewers Association of the Americas has held a January Technical Conference in Toronto for many years. In 1995, my employer paid for me to attend. Out of hundreds, there were maybe a couple of dozen craft brewers in attendance. The keynote speaker was Michael Jackson. His message was that craft brewing was the wave of the future and that consumer interest in diverse beers was exploding.

    The response of the big brewery people was telling. First, virtually none of them had heard of Michael Jackson and many seemed incredulous that someone actually wrote full-time about the consumption of beer. I looked around while Michael spoke. There were a lot of folded arms and crossed legs. Many eyes rolled, there were frequent snorts and occasional bursts of derisive laughter. Bear in mind these were production people – brewers – not marketers.

    At the after-conference bar, the comments I overheard were generally dismissive and mocking, to the effect of “Some English guy says we’re all gonna drink stout in the future. Yeah, right!”

    I was disappointed at the attitude of such well educated, highly skilled and resourceful people. I think it explains to a degree the “If ya can’t beat ’em, buy ’em” strategy their employers have resorted to.

    • That’s very interesting Doug, thanks. And this is 20 years after New Albion started up and Anchor started to make some impression, 15 years after Sierra Nevada, 10 years after the first Ontario micros.

      Let me ask you a question: did the average industry brewer though (of the time I mean) appreciate “good” beer, say Pilsner Urquell, the good German brands, British beer at its best? Did they like all-malt beer, unpasteurized beer? Even if they thought it was a small movement that would go nowhere did they share interest in the beer palate historically so to speak? I can understand maybe they wanted to show solidarity with their employer from the business standpoint but beyond that did they appreciate the historical background to craft beer, still partly operative in Europe, or was that dimension lost to them by that time (versus say, 1910 or even 1933)?


  2. Many early craft brewing models, as Dubuque Star reinvented as Rhomberg, were based on taking share from imports, yet imports rose steadily from the early 70s until about now. See this diagram in the recent book Beeronomics. I think the answer again is, the share slowly grown by the craft segment was taken from the domestic brewers, not imports. Imports were part of the beer revival story.

  3. I lived in chicago 1975-77 and visited regularly to the mid-80s. Augsburger was a favorite when I lived there. Pabst Andeker was also a malty treat in the 70’s. I think Pabst adjusted the Andeker formula in the early 80’s, resulting in a more mainstream product. Also Eau Claire Hibernia produced some memorable beers (dunkel weizen!) while they lasted.

    The inconsistent comments and ratings, I think, reflected a combination of personal preference for style and untrained palates. Nowadays, my “sophisticated” palate rejects some brews due to my preference for British style moderate alcohol ales. I don’t like most of the American IPAs, flavored and sour brews that crowd the market shelves. My local microbrewery now seldom brews my favorite ESB and English style Pale Ale. Current trends have passed me by.

    • Very interesting, thanks for this. I cannot recall when I tried Andeker, it may have been the mid-70s or mid-80s. By the time I had it, I’m almost certain it reverted to an adjunct mix. I remember thinking it was good but not in the class of the best imports or early crafts, but quite possibly when all-malt was much better.My palate too was trained in the English way of pale ale. For many years in fact, I found it difficult to drink American Pale Ale, and for example Grant’s India Pale Ale was very hard to drink for me, not the intensity of hop bitterness, but the West Coast flavour. I used to call it broadly the “California” taste, as every time I had one it reminded me of early trips out there trying the beers. However, in time I got used to the taste and like it now. Still, a great bitter, ESB or bottled English pale is hard to beat as the English hops can be so good, when properly used. Especially the flowery end of the taste, some of the Northeast brewers knew how to get at it, others did more of a hybrid, St. Ambroise Pale Ale in Montreal, say, or Geary Pale Ale from Maine. Shipyard made excellent English style beers, still does I hope. Yard too in Philly. Goose Island IPA is kind of the obverse in many ways with its oregano-like finish (a subconscious influence of the town’s famous pizza style maybe?). I couldn’t drink it for years but like it now, and I think under Anheuser Busch InBev it is actually better than it was. I never thought the early GI beers were that good and I visited the first brewpub in Lincoln Park a few times. I think it benefitted from novelty, frankly, whereas Romberg, which got good reviews in Michael Jackson’s books, was too early on the scene. Even a couple of years made a difference … and anyway Dubuque and Milwaukee are not Chicago despite the latter’s earlier fame in brewing. Rhomberg was made in Iowa but marketed in Milwaukee in ’85-’87 because the owner then, John Ermitage, lived in Milwaukee.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: