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.