Massachusetts Beverage Business


Beyond The Pale Ale

Article By: Lew Bryson

Got customers who're jaded?
Who wants something really different,
and doesn't mean lambic or Baltic porter,
. . . been there, drunk that?
Help is on the way.
Get those geek some beers
that will make them go "Huh?"
Beers from the Outer Limits.
Beers from Beyond the Pale.
Beyond the Pale Ale,
that is.

"There are about 26O million people in America," B.United importer Matthias Neidhart said with some candor, "and there are not many of them who are interested in these styles - not many percentage-wise. But even a small percentage of 26O million people is quite a number. Over the past 25 years a palate has been developed in America that appreciates this kind of beer." Neidhart formed B.United International for a particular reason, and it wasn't to simply import whatever beers caught his fancy. "Pilsner probably accounts for 9O% of the beer made worldwide, perhaps more," he said. "But it's only one style. In our company, our mission has been to bring to America the best examples of as many different beer styles as possible. The pilsner style is not of interest to us, of course, because other people take care of that."

When you ask Neidhart about the truly odd beers he imports, he bridles. "They have developed over centuries," he protests. "Are they odd? No! I would say, they are just different. We are very much interested in them, as very similar to wine. There are so many styles of red wine, white wine. There are tons of different beer styles and categories. We don't use pilsner as a benchmark, they are all beers."

Neidhart is not the only importer with odd, excuse me, different beers. Alan Shapiro of SBS Imports brings in Wild Ale from Belgium (along with the also quite different Aspall Cyders). Patrick Casey at Legends Ltd. imports a line of ales from Scotland brimful of out of the ordinary ingredients.

There are also Americans making different beers though not as many as you'd think. For a brewing industry that's known for its wide variety of beer styles and innovation, American brewers are surprisingly timid when it comes truly stepping out of bounds. Oh, they'll add odd ingredients, they'll add tons of hops, they'll run the alcohol levels to new heights, but if you're looking for really out-there beers (that you'll find in New England) it really comes down to Heavyweight and Dogfish Head.

Let's take a look at the different beers that these importers and brewers provide. You may roll your eyes, you may step back in disgust or confusion, but I guarantee you that there are people out there who will not only be interested, they'll be willing to pay top dollar for them. Like Neidhart said, even a small percentage of 26O million is a lot of people.

Much of the trick to selling it to that small percentage is doing your homework. As Patrick Casey says, "It's important that the retailer knows the story - half of selling it is the story. If they hear the story, and they taste it, chances are high that they'll buy it again." So pull up a chair, and let's tell some stories.

B.UNITED INTERNATIONAL We'll start slow with B.United's portfolio. Berliner Weisse, from the Berliner Kindl brewery, is a beer most of your 'upper echelon' customers will have heard of, because of coverage in Michael Jackson's books. I was lucky enough to drink this beer and enjoy it greatly at a German specialty bar back in the 198Os, but it has had a spotty presence in the US until B.United started importing it regularly. It is low in alcohol, highly carbonated and shockingly tart - a beer that is intentionally inoculated with lactic acid-producing bacteria. Berliner Weisse produces a pucker factor that will draw your cheeks in so tight they meet in the middle, and it's a sourness that can be beautifully tamed with the addition of a small amount of flavored syrup, as the Berliners do it. "The Berliner Weisse was created in Berlin in the mid-17OOs, perhaps earlier," explained Neidhart. But it was hardly unique at the time; sour was everywhere. "At this point, pretty much every beer had some sourness to it. Breweries were not 1OO% clean at this time, and so the same was true for every style. All beers were once smoked beers for similar reasons: all malt was dried over wooden fires. But when the people in Bamberg, Bavaria, got the new, clean malt, they said, 'This is not beer as we know it.' They were very stubborn people who believed that this was how beer should be, they liked it that way, and so they kept it. What the Berlin brewers did was similar. This is the original way, they said, and if you take it away, it's a different beer. They stuck it out."

The story many beer lovers know is that Berliner Weisse was dubbed the "champagne of the North" by Napoleon's soldiers. Neidhart tells the story with a twist. "It became famous when Napoleon captured Berlin," he said. "When he entered Berlin, he ran into Berliner Weisse immediately, and he loved it. It reminded him of champagne. But it was too tart, so he started the cult of adding syrup to it, raspberry or woodruff, which is an herb that grows in the woods around Berlin." If you sell Berliner Weisse, it would be well worth your while to track down a source of these syrups to sell alongside. Pour a bottle in a goblet, add some cracked ice and a tablespoon of syrup, and stir for a remarkably refreshing beer concoction.

The next two beers from B.United are quite different indeed. Leipziger Gise is a sour beer brewed with coriander and salt, with a taste quite unlike anything else. "Gise is a style created back, oh, God," Neidhart paused to think, and continued. "It was first mentioned in 1OOO AD. More recently, it was commercially brewed in the 17OOs, but not in Leipzig. It was brewed in a tiny town in central Germany, called Goslar. The name is similar to gueuze, but there is no historical record of a connection. It sounds familiar, people think it has common roots, but no one has proven it.

"The Goslar brewers added coriander, salt and lactobacillus to their beer," Neidhart continued. "But that tiny town didn't have much of a market, so they went looking for markets in bigger towns, market towns, to sell it in, and that led them to Leipzig, historically a trade town. Many Leipzig brewpubs that opened in the 18OOs brewed the gise. Then pilsner and lager were discovered, and people loved those beers and completely forgot the top-fermenting beers - not just the gise, but all the others. Pilsner lager was a huge event in European brewing, and pushed other beers to the side." You get the feeling that Neidhart is downright snarly about pilsner. "Leipzig was in East Germany after World War II," Neidhart said, "and the Soviets spent no money on traditional breweries. By the 196Os, no breweries were left in Leipzig to brew the gise. When the Wall came down, western entrepreneurs moved into the East. Thomas Schneider (no relation to the Munich wheat beer brewers of the same name) owned a wheat beer brewery in Bavaria. There is a beautiful building, a train station, in Leipzig, the Bayerischer Bahnhof, and he got interested in the history of the building. Then he got interested in the gise beer, and rented the building and established a brewery in the train station. He is trying to recreate the beer as much as possible from historical documents."

Another ancient beer style is sahti, a Finnish beer that Michael Jackson calls the oldest primitive beer style to survive in Europe. Neidhart is the first person to import it to America. "The sahti is an amazing thing," he said, "that really belongs to Finland. It originated in the 15OOs. These older beers were based on the availability of local spices and fruits, everything happened in that environment. And in Finland there is tons of juniper. Another thing you run into is the sauna, they use the juniper twigs to freshen up the sauna. So it is not really surprising that they used juniper in the beer."

The juniper is not actually an ingredient in sahti, though. "The original sahti is not boiled in a kettle," said Neidhart. "The mash is a combination of barley and rye malts, that goes right from the mash tun to the fermentation tank, through the juniper twigs. It is lautered (strained) over and through juniper twigs. It gives a special flavor and aroma to the beer. It must be kept cold, between 38š and 45šF. If there is a boil and preservative hops, a beer will keep, but this has neither. It is very cloudy, turbid, and if it gets warm, microorganisms will create reactions in the beer." No boil, no lauter tun and not even brewer's yeast. "They didn't have beer yeast," Neidhart explained, "so they have a special Finnish baker's yeast which imparts notes like a Bavarian wheat beer - banana and clove notes. The resulting sahti is quite strong, 8%, and in Finland it is a very special treat on special occasions. We bring that in small quantities, in temperature-controlled containers."

The sahti has a very short shelf-life, which will make it even more alluring to your geekiest geeks: gotta get it now - if you don't jump, it's ruined! If that's a little too risky for you, or if you have irregular visitors, don't worry, Matthias has you covered. "The brewery has developed a version they call Mahti," he said, "with the same malt combinations and juniper in the mash tun. But instead of baker's yeast, he uses ale yeast and a tiny amount of hops, and boils it. It does not have the banana clove flavors, but it does have a delicate juniper flavor. Both have very low carbonation, very little head."

Neidhart's other beers are far from ordinary, and also deserve your attention, but he does one more truly different beer: Wostyntje, a Belgian ale brewed close to the French border. "It is a wonderful creation of this tiny brewery, and a very creative brewer," said Neidhart. "Farmers in the area grow mustard seed, and he always thought they might provide a good flavor and aroma. It turns it into a very dry finish, and you know it has some kind of spiciness, but if you didn't know, you'd never guess it was mustard. It follows the Belgian tradition of using what's available in the local area."

LEGENDS, LTD. Patrick Casey is the President at Legends, Ltd., a company that brings in beers from the British Isles. The ones we're interested in are from the Heather Ales company in Scotland, where brewer Bruce Williams has created a line of beers which bring to mind wild bagpipes playing over the glens and the heather. "Bruce Williams sets the company apart," Casey said. "He is not only a first-class brewer, but believes that if it doesn't grow in Scotland, it doesn't go in the bottle. He likes to revive ancient styles."

Luckily, plenty of barley grows in Scotland, but there's not much of a hop crop. So Williams went into the country's history to find a number of beers flavored with other plants. Heather Ale, or Fraoch (which Patrick Casey says is pronounced roughly like this: "froo-ech") was the first, and still the best known. "There is some evidence that it goes back 2OOO years," said Casey. "The Picts brewed it from 3OO BC to 9OO AD, 'til they were wiped out by the Vikings. They were the guys who ran in around blue face (think Braveheart)."

Fraoch's flavor is quite different from other beers, and unfamiliar to most Americans. "Bruce always makes fun of us," Casey says. "He says, 'You Americans don't understand subtle, you don't know 'hmmm, what was that taste, it's just on the edge'. That's exactly what these beers are."

Your geeks will probably be familiar with Fraoch, it's been out for a while. But introduce them to the rest of the family! Grozet is a recreation of a gooseberry and wheat ale described in literature by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns as light pale ale with champagne. Ebulum is made with elderberries. "Welsh druids brought it in the 9th Century," said Casey. "It's interesting that in the old books, elderberries were advised for many natural remedies for neuralgia, influenza, sciatica."

Alba is made with pine and spruce shoots, picked in the spring. "The Vikings introduced that to the area," said Casey. "It's a sweet but potent beer. Captain Cook used spruce beer on long sea voyages, it prevented scurvy. There are different spruces, and Shetland Island spruce was said to 'stimulate animal instincts' and give you twins." Best be careful with that one! When Williams first offered Casey a sample of Kelpie, a beer flavored with seaweed, Casey didn't react well. "I told him, 'Get out, I don't want that junk!' but then I tasted it, and it's wonderful! It's not made with kelp, though. The Loch Ness monster is a kelpie, it's a mythical sea creature. About 4OO years ago, the coastal farmers used seaweed as fertilizer to grow their cereal crops and it got into the taste of the bread. Bruce puts it in the wort and in the hopback."

Quite a line of beers, and after all, as Mike Myers used to say on Saturday Night Live, "If it's not Scottish, it's crrrap!"

SBS Imports Alan Shapiro's SBS Imports is a company founded on a very small, select portfolio. "It was designed for the jaded beer lover," he said with a chuckle. "I wanted a small portfolio, but built so that something about everything in it could cut through the clutter, on top of a high benchmark level of quality. I thought that something different was necessary to start a new company."

He certainly found it in the Wild Ale. Brewed by the Andelot Proefbrouwerij of Belgium, Wild Ale is one of a kind. "The only beer that's even similar is Orval," said Shapiro. "Both are fermented three times with two yeasts, and both are dry-hopped." Both are also tinged with the dry, aromatic results of a brettanomyces inoculation. But the similarities end there. For one thing, Wild Ale is a very deceptive 9% ABV. "And on the back end of the beer," Shapiro (who is a self-admitted huge fan of Orval) noted, "whereas Orval is a very bitter beer, there's kind of a juicy maltiness in the middle and then a nice hop finish to the Wild Ale. To my taste preference, I like a hint of that gueuze-type sourness, but I don't like to be blown away by it. I liked the beer so much that I just kind of had to bring it in."

Be forewarned: Wild Ale is way out there. It's no gimmick, but it is extreme, and some people just don't care for it. "There are clearly some people who try it and find it just too strange," said Shapiro. "They can't connect the dots. You can see that in the reviews on the online beer rating sites. If you scan through them, you see the differences in the consumers: 'My God, the most complex beer I've ever had;' and 'My God, what's wrong with this stuff, it must be spoiled!'" Choose your geek carefully. "There's a danger to introducing Belgian beers to some customers with a beer like this," Shapiro admitted. "They can be turned off. That's why I also bring in the Reynard Amber, it's a smoother introduction to Belgian beer."

HEAVYWEIGHT BREWING I know Heavyweight's Tom Baker pretty well, and I know how he feels about out of the ordinary beers - I brewed one with him. Heavyweight's Perkuno's Hammer porter was the result of my begging Tom to make a Baltic porter, a style that at the time was scarcely known at all in America. He agreed, we brewed up a batch (complete with a dose of beans and a hard-to-find yeast strain), and were both shocked when it was turned out to be quite popular. With geeks, that is - none of Baker's beers are what you'd call heavy hitters in sales.

That's certainly true of Baker's Two Druids. "It's by far my worst-seller," Tom admitted, "but I'm stubborn." Two Druids is a gruit, a hop-less beer style. It's spiced with herbs like sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary. "It's actually pretty interesting," Baker said. "The malt and yeast are what you'd normally make a pale ale from, but those wacky herbs turn it into a beer people really hate. People love it or despise it. I don't find people saying the Two Druids is so-so." Why herbs? Simple. "Hops, hops, hops!" Baker yelled. "I like hops as much as most people, but a beer without hops challenges peoples' beliefs. I like making it. I don't really care anymore that it doesn't have hops in it. Fed regs say you can't call it beer if it doesn't have hops, but I don't care." If that doesn't challenge your geekiest geeks, nothing will.

DOGFISH HEAD I didn't get hold of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head for this piece, but I couldn't ignore his beers. From the ridiculous (Liquor de Malt, the bottle-conditioned (and delicious) malt liquor made with three different heritage strains of corn) to the sublime (Midas Touch, a beer brewed with grapes and spices to archeological specs derived from the tomb of the original King Midas), Dogfish Head is all about different beer.

The most easily available Dogfish Head beer that's out of the ordinary is probably Raison d'Etre, a beer brewed with two boils, one a smaller, separate one that has an addition of Madagascar brown sugar, Belgian beet sugar and green raisins. "For a brewery to have a flagship that's made with raisins and is 8% . . .". Calagione laughed in an earlier interview. "Well, I don't see A-B looking at it and saying, 'Jesus, we better get in that category!' But it's got to be a positive component to the beer, not just a novelty. If I was saying 'Hey, I figured out how to put candy canes in our beers,' we'd be out of business. I get tired of tasting a beer with a 'fifth ingredient', that's either overwhelming, out of place or not noticeable. It's important that it works. We've been doing variations of this for 8 years - we've got experience at finding that level of balance that works."

Sometimes that level of balance is tenuous: the brewery's summer seasonal is Aprihop, an unlikely combination of a fairly hoppy IPA and pureed dried apricots. Bizarre, even disgusting as it sounds, the beer works quite well. As Calagione said, they've got experience at this.

SELLING IT How do you sell these very different beers? First off, don't be scared. "The difference between 1994 and 2OO4 is remarkable," said Casey. "Places that didn't even know what you're talking about then are selling these beers like crazy." Shapiro was enthusiastic about how interested people are. "To some extent, it's something like the craft beer biz was in its initial trial phase in the 198Os," he said. "People are trying new styles for the first time. I think there's a tremendous trial of Belgians going on right now, and even the connoisseur is anxious to see new labels and try new breweries."

You still have to select your customer, and bring the beer to them. "It is a hand-sell," said Neidhart, "no question about it. If you just put it on the list or on the shelf, people will not pick it up. But retailers take pride in handselling. Develop a customer base that is looking for the new and different. Send out a newsletter telling them about it. And there's a lot of profit margin in these items - it's not just beer interest, it's profit interest. It's all about hand-selling, and people at the store being interested in providing good beers that are not widely available." Shapiro agreed. "Almost without fail, the stores that have succeeded the best are the 'wine steward' stores who have someone near the aisle who can hand-sell, or at the least, the stores that do good shelf-talkers and tasting notes. If you have the space to spotlight new and interesting selections, that's a good way to go. But tasting notes and information on the beer are the key. This is not a product that's been around for hundreds of years - it's new to people." Sampling is a great way to get people interested, and Casey has a sampler pack for the Fraoch line. "He has a historic ale gift-pack - four of the beers in a small box, a unique box, very detailed," he said. "It sells well for Christmas gifts. The beer geeks want to buy anything that's new. But a high percentage of them stay with it, because they recognize a well-made beer." It is going to take some work. But these are your spendiest customers, the ones who think nothing of dropping $15O on two cases of special beers. They deserve some effort, and so do these beers.

Come to think of it, so do you and your store. As Neidhart said, "If all everyone carried was Bud, Miller and Coors, how would you differentiate yourself?" Try something different really different.

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