Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Lew Bryson

Sounds like Jim Koch knows what he's talking about, doesn't it? The "lunatic fringe of brewing" indeed. Utopias sounds like an insane concept: a unique gold-tone bottle shaped like a brewing vessel, a beer that's 5O proof and practically flat, blended from several batches of beers aged for different periods, up to 12 years for some. Oh, and it sells for $1OO to $12O a bottle. The man would be crazy, making stuff like that, but for one little thing: it sells. Koch's not crazy, but he is wrong. He calls Utopias the ultimate extreme beer, but it is not a quadruple-hopped super-smoked buzz-bomb hyped by guys wearing full-body hopsuits, the kind of beer that sells to reliable beer geeks and maybe a couple of brave folks who'll then never buy a beer with the word "hop" on it again. No, Utopias and a small, select group of other brands are luxury beers, and if they're sold right, folks will come back to buy them again and again. What makes a beer a luxury beer? Price is definitely a factor. There are price levels that will scare away the everyday purchaser, usually starting around $5 a 12oz. bottle at retail, and these beers reach that and fly right on by.

Don Feinberg has a ready answer for anyone who asks why his beers cost so much. "How much is a beer experience worth to you?," he asks right back. "Let me put it another way. Do you think a Mercedes-Benz gets you to work any faster than a Kia? No, of course not. You're paying for it because you appreciate it." He's got some real luxury beers in the Vanberg & DeWulf garage, too. "My luxury lineup - Oude Boon gueuze: 375ml bottles that cost $8 to $12 each off-premise. Then we have Avec Les Bons Vouex de la Brasserie Dupont. That's between $1O and $12 for a 75Oml. Then I have what people have told me is the most expensive beer they've ever seen, and who do you think you are charging that much - Scaldis Prestige, in a 75O ml bottle for $4O. "Look," he protests, "the Oude Boon is absolutely worth every penny. It's made from beer that's been fermenting in-cask for at least two years. These beers are not 'aged' - they're actually alive, they're still fermenting in the casks. A specific yeast strain may not appear until month 24, month 36, month 42. Being fermented in the wood, in a low-oxygen environment, these different yeasts can compete. It's time. The price of any great aged fermented product is based on risk and time." Feinberg knows that from both sides of the production equation, as the former owner of Brewery Ommegang. "When we were at Ommegang, we aged cases of Hennepin in Howe Caverns, and we charged a lot more for it. And people said, 'But it's the same beer! How can you charge more?' Well, what about trucking it, storing it in the cave for 9 months, then trucking it back - and then there are people like you who won't buy it! There are going to be those people every time you make a special product, so: can you sell it? That's part of the cost, too." Lanny Hoff of Artisanal Imports talks about the brewers at Bosteel, in Belgium, who also apparently like giving their beer a ride. "DeuS varies in price; in a liquor store from $24 to $28, in a bar it may go from $3O to $45. It's extremely expensive to produce. The beer is brewed initially in Belgium and undergoes primary fermentation there. Then they tanker it to France where it undergoes methode champenoise fermentation in the bottle, and it's another year before the beer's ready. It's made like no other beer. The bottle's very expensive. That has to be passed along to the consumer." Jim Koch talks about costs for Utopias, and you almost get the feeling that he's talking about research and development for an advanced electronic device. "Utopias is part of a process we started with the Triple Bock: finding out what we get when we push fermentation to high levels. It takes time measured in months and years, not days and weeks. It's made in small batches that are aged in a series of oak casks from 2 years to 12 to 13 years, and then blended. There are a ton of ingredients used to make not much beer.

Another characteristic that puts them in the category is broader appeal than extreme beers; these are generally not beers that will really slap you silly, but beers that will wow you with depth and complexity. If that sounds like beer that a wine-drinker would like, go to the head of the class. Jim Koch likes to take on that comparison between Utopias and wine head to head. "You're dealing with a beverage that has all the complexity of cognac or port. When we introduce it [for the year] we do a blind tasting: our beer against a 1994 Taylor Fladgate Port, arguably the best port ever made. We had Paul Pacult [noted distilled spirits expert] pick a great cognac. We've never lost one of those blind tastings: the tasters have always preferred the Utopias. That gives me some confidence; if it can beat those at $1OO a bottle, it's a bargain. And you get a nickel deposit back in Massachusetts!" Jeff Coleman represents Fuller's of London through his import company, Distinguished Brands, and one of the pleasures of that business is the annual release of the distinctively-packaged Fuller's Vintage Ale. "They sold it for the first time in the US in 1997," he recalls. "Reg Drury, the brewmaster at the time, told me the shelf life should be about three years. It's turned out to be about seven years. As it gets into the mature years, four to six, it starts taking on flavors of a tawny port. Then, in the twilight years, it gets sherry-like flavors. People who don't drink beer love it, they'll ask "That's a beer?" Yes, it is. "One of the most remarkable pairings I've ever had was a dark chocolate truffle with DeuS," says Hoff. "It was out of sight, though you'd never think it would work. The beer's light, but it has a very forward herbal character. Bosteels swears there are no herbs in the beer. Garrett Oliver has done a number of cheese tastings with it, and if he has a cheese that doesn't pair with anything else, DeuS comes to his rescue. There's so much going on in a sip, it can contrast or complement almost any flavor."

Luxury beers are luxury items because of their cost and intensity of flavor, because their purchase and consumption is a special occasion. That special occasion aura has a 'halo effect' that spreads widely. It's worked for Hoff with DeuS. "We've gotten more press on that beer than on any other beer I've ever worked with. We do make money on it; it's very consistent, and near the holidays it sells quite well. But the prestige thing as a beer geek with an import company, how could we take a pass on that! It's a whole lot of fun, and there's nothing else like it in the world. I could be selling paper clips, but I'm not. This is the kind of thing, this is the reason I get up in the morning." Chad Morrison is the store manager at Blanchards, in West Roxbury. He sees that halo effect burnishing his store's reputation, and he works with it. "If I sell one of them, I might make a higher mark-up," he notes. "In the long run, that doesn't do much. But I want people coming here to find the stuff they can't find elsewhere, or to see what I have that's new. I tell the wholesalers and the importers: if it comes in, send it. I don't care what it is: if it's strange, if it's rare, I'll take it." Feinberg sees his luxury beers as an up-sell from the rest of his portfolio, a necessary final step. "I sell them because people should experience them," he says. "If you don't initially want to pay the money for these products, but you'll try their other products, you're buying that same tradition. You see, strength isn't for the purpose of splitting your skull open - it's for depth of flavor and complexity. When you get it, when you taste that, you'll realize that they are very skilled brewers, and you will then want to find more of it in the luxury beers. That carryover is very important to us." "The Vintage Ale," Coleman explains, "explains just how special the Fuller's ales are that you can pick up every day. This is a special brewery. When you try the Vintage, you want to try the others in the range. The other purpose of the Vintage Ale is as a treat to their loyal clientele. They only do about 4OO hectoliters a year, just one run. They always tell us the same thing: take care of the people who take care of you, first. It's on allocation to our distributors."

Jackson Cannon recently oversaw an upgrade to his beer menu, adding some breadth, some Belgian, some luxury. Why? "I'm mostly a cocktail guy, and I have a fantastic wine person. There was a chance beer would be left behind, so I gave it a lot of thought. The list reads Draft, Bottle, Belgian. It seemed like the best, richest way to deepen our program. Whatever the stigma is to the beer drinker in the cocktail bar or fine restaurant has been removed a bit. There are enough places where people are exposed to better beers, that a consciousness is dawning. It's definitely at the point where if you're looking for good beer, you're not looked down upon by the sommelier." Cannon is working some luxurious food pairings, too. "We've explored a lot of Belgian beers for their excellent qualities of pairing with food. Our chef Jamie Bissonnette does a lot with Alsatian charcuterie, so these lowland beers make a lot of sense. They mix very well with food, they're very balanced. The Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel has the hops bitterness, the Chouffe spiciness, and a sourmash maltiness at the end. It's great with blood sausage. And then you can get them into the beers that are a bit more odd on their own." What are some more of the luxury beers? "The Utopias is up there," says Morrison. "Dogfish Head World Wide Stout is $1O or $11 for a 12oz. bottle; you've got to be on allocation to get that. Some of the fanciest beers from Allagash go for quite a bit: Musette has a lot going on, it's a bourbon-aged beer that goes for about $15 for a 75Oml. It's a hand-sell, we did a tasting and sold about 8 bottles in an hour. It's like wine, but people really love it, so it's not so hard." Sometimes it's the size of the bottle that makes it a luxury. "We get the Chimay jeroboam at 5 liters," Morrison says. "The glass is really thick, it's bottle-conditioned. Duvel magnums are only available in the holiday season, it's the champagne of Belgian beers. I've got a 6 liter jerobaum of Unibroue La Fin du Monde: it's a showpiece, I'll buy it myself if we don't sell it." What's the best way to sell these beers? "Information," says Hoff. "Educate yourself on the product. Taste it. Follow the directions, chill it, open it, taste it. It astonishes me when people try to sell beverages without tasting them. The most effective retailers are the guys who take the time to taste everything. The guys who taste and form their own opinions, those are the guys you can trust." Coleman just laughs. "You have to explain why it's a $7 to $1O bottle, but I've never heard of anyone being disappointed." Feinberg plays directly to the inferiority complex beer drinkers struggle with. "These beers give the real beer lover the chance to strut their stuff. You like great wines? Try this. If they're out with the wine guy, the Scotch guy, it's always 'Let's get a great bottle of Bordeaux, no, I just got this bottle of Springbank.' Well, the beer guy can offer one of these up and really stay in the game. You don't even have to say "it's good for beer." It's just good. We don't want to make excuses." No excuses. Just great, eye-opening beer.

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