Context Changes Everything – Usually

Ontario beer writer Jordan St. John, in this posting, raises toward the end an interesting issue, whether a change of context such as sale of a craft brewery to a mega-brewer changes perceptions of a beer.

The answer is clearly yes.

This is not peculiar to takeovers of hitherto mom and pops by large, publicly-traded entities. Even where a well-regarded brewery retains independence, increased distribution and availability of its beer and of course competition by new entrants tend to ratchet down its amperage over time.

No one regards Anchor Brewery of San Francisco, or California’s Sierra Nevada Brewery, with indifference much less derision. Still, the magical aura surrounding them twenty and thirty years ago has largely dissipated. Ditto for the Belgian white beer, Hoegaarden, the Belgian Trappist beer, Chimay, and the Imperial-type Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka (a former British colony under a different name) – all lauded decades ago by the peerless beer critic Michael Jackson. Countless other beers fall in this category.

pink-elephant-peanutJust the other day, I was struck by a signboard in front of a pub advertising the strong Belgian specialty beer, Delirium Tremens. The pub was not a beer haven as such, but this distinctive beer was available there – an example of its success in getting into the wider market. Today it’s another import, one of almost an endless number available…

The answer is, and this applies to wine, whisky, a restaurant’s cuisine, or a cheese, to assess them strictly on merit. One must try to abstract out all other considerations. It’s not always easy. Assuming no significant production changes over time, a classic is still a classic whether sold by a community of cloistered monks or a multinational behemoth.

Some products seem to resist changes of context, they have a beguiling power which ensures that familiarity will never breed contempt. Champagne is like this, or Coca-Cola, or Heinz ketchup. In beer, Pilsner Urquell occupies this territory, and two others at least: Heineken and Guinness. They have preserved the mystique they acquired early on, whether that is deserved is another question. (I think it is for the first two, not for Guinness). Various factors play into it. Urquell was the first blonde pilsner beer (1842) and took Europe and then the world by storm. Even the long Communist interlude in the former Czechoslovakia could not shake that.

Heineken was the first European import to reach American after Repeal in 1933, and acquired an ensconced position it never lost in American bourgeois and haute circles. Guinness soldiered on long after porter and stout almost died out in their homeland of England, and shone by being “the” widely available black beer when most were blonde or amber.

Sometimes superstars of long standing do burn out, this has happened in my view to Budweiser (not the Light) and also to Coors Banquet (not the light version again).

The takeaway: use your own judgment. Be swayed neither by trends nor common perceptions unless you are a brewer or a retailer of liquor products, if so then it’s different. Maybe*.


*Note re image used: The image above is entitled, “Pink Elephant, Peanut”, and is in the public domain. The source used is here.