Sam Adams and American Marketing

I love good beer. I don’t overly think of myself as a beer snob, though. There’s a time and place for a good cold Budweiser (although let’s not even talk Miller, okay?). The more I know about beer, the more some of my old favorites fall out of favor with me; but many beers I’ve loved for years still find their way into my cooler. It’s about range and variety and set and setting I suppose. That said, I generally find Sam Adams beers innocuous enough. They’re not great beers, but I’ll drink them without too much of a fuss. My main complaint with them is that they brew this huge selection of beers, most of which just don’t taste that different. They have a flavor profile that runs throughout their beers. I’d love to see them brew fewer beers but give each of them a bit more character (although I have yet to try their triple bock yet which certainly seems to fall into the extreme beer category). Nonetheless, I was at a local pizza place last night and Sam Adams lager was really my only option–so, as I say, I ordered and was generally content. Why am I writing all this, though? Because I feel like Sam Adams and Jim Koch, as most American advertisers, play us for fools.

For instance, have you seen those ads that emphasize they use “a pound more hops” than other beers? OK, and that means….? There are two options here. One, the target audience is one that knows beer and knows that this claim in and of itself is meaningless. It’s about flavor profile and hop varieties. Is it a beer style that’s appropriate for a pound more hops? What kinds of hops are we talking? If your audience understands hops then give us something of substance. The other possibility, and more to the point, is you’re selling beer to people who don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of hops in a beer. In that case, the claim is mere pandering, bolstered by the American notion that more must mean better. Hmmm, more hops must mean better beer, ok I’ll buy it. It’s like the old Coors ads that rave about the Rocky Mountain water they use. Fair enough, but either your consumer understands the way water works in a beer or not. For instance, you wouldn’t want to brew an English style ale with such “pure” water as the mineral content is what makes an English ale an English ale. Now, the water that Coors was touting may actually be appropriate for the lager style beer they were brewing, but so the hell would purified water. Does it really matter that it came from the Rockies? Not so much. But back to Sam Adams and hops. Here’s their lengthy, fairly full-of-itself description of their American Lager:

Samuel Adams Boston Lager® is the best example of the fundamental characteristics of a great beer, offering a full, rich flavor that is both balanced and complex. It is brewed using a decoction mash, a time consuming, traditional four vessel brewing process discarded by many contemporary brewers. This process brings forth a rich sweetness from the malt that makes it well worth the effort. Samuel Adams Boston Lager® also uses only the finest of ingredients including two row barley, as well as German Noble aroma hops. The exclusive use of two row barley not only imparts a full, smooth body but also gives the beer a wide spectrum of malt flavor ranging from slightly sweet to caramel to slightly roasted. The Noble hops varieties, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Tettnang Tettnanger, add a wide range of floral, piney and citrus notes, which are present from the aroma, through the flavor, to the lingering smooth finish. We take great pride in the Noble hops used in our beers. They are hand selected by Jim Koch and our other brewers from the world’s oldest hops growing area. Among the world’s most expensive, they cost twenty times as much as other hops.

OK, you use a decoction method. Again, it’s this claim that’s geared toward those who may not know what it means. Most people would ask why it has been discarded by most brewers. Could it be that technology has allowed brewers to achieve some of the same effects more efficiently? Most brewers who still use decoction are Belgian brewers who need it to achieve a flavor profile that is particular to many Belgian beers. I’m not suggesting that James Koch should or shouldn’t use the decoction method, but just to point out the ambiguous way it fits into this advertising campaign. OK, your hops cost twenty times as much as other hops–again, the question is about the flavor profile of the hops. Are you telling us about flavor or why you may be able to charge a particular price for your beer? I think this description, while it appears to be informative, from a beer-lover’s perspective is all marketing. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the importance of marketing and know that sam adams is a business, but it’s at the heart of what I see wrong with discourse in America today. It’s all sound bite and slogan vs. substance. It doesn’t work for politics and it doesn’t work for beer either: talk to your audience as if they know beer, and you’ll teach the others along the way. Or, better yet, save the speech and brew the best beer you can.

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2 Responses to “Sam Adams and American Marketing”

  1. cbd Says:

    Failure to differentiate is a problem for breweries large and small. My last visit to the Great Dane, I thought they would be better off with fewer beers on tap. How many pale ales do you need? Too often, I wonder how many of a roster of beers are built from base mashes fermented with the same yeast, and different only in adjunct grains and hopping. On the other hand, that diacetyl tang is part of the Sam Adams brand, as much as the Chico yeast of Sierra Nevada. Gotta balance uniqueness and style.

    The marketese calls to mind Edward Tufte’s defiance of the conventional wisdom of simplification: “To clarify, add detail.” Here Sam Adams fails by not adding detail (in particular, “Tettnang tettnanger” is simply redundant) but by oversimplifying to “We spend more money, so the beer is better.” Why not really explain why the beer is different, instead of flinging around big words?

  2. GJF Says:

    Yes, there’s a big difference between a unique character for a brewhouse and a character that simply washes over beer styles. I wondered about Great Dane, too–they do good beers but it’s a big list they’ve got that I’m not sure pays off. I think Sierra’s a pretty good example: they are beers that taste like Sierra as you note, but they’ve also got a nice variety of styles within their profile. Certainly not outrageous, but a good, solid brewery within the scope of who they are.

    “To clarify, add detail.” Nice. I’m trying to remember what brewery (or maybe more than one) that put “Bottom Fermented!!” on a bottle that also clearly said “Lager.” It’s either completely redundant or it has this strange appeal, as in “ooooh, ‘bottom-fermented,’ that sounds exotic” (especially with exclamation points to tell us it’s important!).

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