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09.2004

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Beer Geeks Online

Article By: Andy Crouch

The Internet has fundamentally changed the operation of the brewing industry. From breweries to beer bars to package stores, the internet has had remarkable effects. One of the its most noteworthy achievements has been the empowerment of the online beer geek.



For the brewing industry, the Internet has given birth to an entirely unparalleled consumer movement. While slightly unfair, wine consumers wait until Robert Parker or James Laube tell them what to think about a particular vintage or release. In the beer industry, greater numbers of consumers are shunning the writings of critics such as Michael Jackson for the wisdom of consumer enthusiasts.

Once upon a time, breweries only had to cater to professional writers and critics. Now, the opinion of some guy in the middle of Nebraska outweighs those of the world's most well-known critics. The internet has become the great equalizer. Now anyone with an internet connection and some time to spare can impact the brewing industry. Some brewers are unhappy about this development. They grumble that average consumers should not have such a powerful voice or that they unfairly lay their venomous rants at the feet of unsuspecting brewers. Other brewers have tapped into this change. These brewers cater to the online geeks, providing extra and sometimes direct customer service.

"I think the influence has been very positive," says Greg Koch of the Stone Brewing Company. Koch himself personally interacts with consumers on websites such as BeerAdvocate.com and Ratebeer.com. "Look, the best beers out there do not advertise. Small breweries count on word of mouth to gain new converts. Essentially, the beer enthusiast websites, forums and chat rooms are a form of word-of-mouth, only louder. If you make great beer, you're loving it. If your beer is not so great, I would have little doubt that you would make disparaging comments about the online beer communities."

For members of the brewing industry, this article serves as an informal focus group for the consumer demographic you should be looking to better serve. This group, the consumer beer geek, is made up of dedicated enthusiasts who are willing to spend money on quality products and services, if you are willing to provide them. In this first of two articles, our panel of four of the most well-known consumer beer geeks offers its opinions on the internet, its effects on the brewing industry and what beer geeks look for in a good beer store. In the next segment, the group discusses the characteristics of a good beer bar, how breweries can better serve their needs, the brand loyalty of beer geeks, and the beers that are exciting them right now.



BIERGIRL CORNELIA COREY While a mere consumer, Cornelia Corey is one of the most recognizable females in the world of beer. In 2001, Corey bested other applicants to win the Wynkoop Brewing Company's Beer Drinker of the Year contest. In doing so, Corey broke through the male-centric world of beer to become the first and only female to win the contest.

Corey first became interested in better beer during her first trip to England in 1990. On the plane ride, she became concerned about drinking the "warm flat beer" of real ale. Much to her surprise, however, she discovered a love for the living beer. "After that trip, I made it a point to try local beers whenever possible," she says. "The beer interest grew somewhat slowly until a stay at Oldenberg Beer Camp in 1993. That experience really opened the door to the rich variety in beer. From then until now, the beer hunt has continued. I've been asked before how this 'passion' started. I believe you don't find a passion, it finds you."

DR. BILL BILL SYSAK Bill Sysak's love of better beer started long before he was of legal age to enjoy it. "In 1977, twenty-seven years ago, at the tender age of 15, my father caught me and two friends drinking Lowenbrau Dark in our backyard. My father, who was ahead of his time, had acquired a taste for British ales and German lagers back during World War II. Instead of grounding me (or something worse), he made me a deal - if I promised not to drink away from home and never to drive while intoxicated he would show me what real beer was all about and how to enjoy it responsibly."

Sysak is known to many in the beer industry for the generous beer tasting events he hosts at home and during the Great American Beer Festival each year. In August, Sysak will play host to his eighth annual 12 Hour Birthday, Belgian Beer and Barley Wine Festival. In his backyard, Sysak will serve up a mind- and palate-boggling selection of more than 1000 bottles from his beer cellar. He will pour two different beers every ten minutes for more than 12 hours for 150 of his "closest friends". Ever the gracious host, Sysak also provides more than two dozen kegs donated by breweries and home brewers in California, "just in case (his guests) get thirsty during the nine minutes between pours."

DAVO DAVE RODRIGUEZ Dave Rodriguez is all over the place. You can find him in San Diego for the Real Ale Festival, helping a small, local brewer bottle his beers, driving up to Boston to volunteer at another beer festival, and then contributing hundreds of beer and pub reviews on BeerAdvocate.com. From his first taste of Anchor Steam, Rodriguez was hooked on better beer. From that day forward, he threw himself full-tilt into the American craft brewing scene. He remains a strong advocate for his local New York and New Jersey brewing scenes.

VENOM LOREN VERKOVOD As one of the internet's most active and recognized beer geeks, Verkovod has published reviews on more than 2000 beers from more than 42 countries. Ten years ago, with nowhere else to turn, publishing a book would not have been out of the question. James Robertson's seminal Beer Taster's Log, which featured 6000 condensed reviews, pales in comparison to Verkovod's extensive, layered descriptions.

Take for example, both of their reviews of Bar Harbor Brewing Company's Cadillac Mountain Stout. Of the beer, Robertson writes: "Opaque brown, brown head, malt nose with a complex citrus-yeast background, big dry malt palate; hops come in at the finish; long dry malt and hop aftertaste; definitely a dry stout style." Of the same beer, Verkovod writes: "Impenetrable mahogany. Heaping head of sticky tan foam. Rushing carbonation. Fantastic aroma of dark chocolate malts, black malts, peanut skins and coffee beans. Heavenly array of dark malt flavors. Sweetened chocolate, dark toffee and cappuccino-esque coffee flavors. Sweeter than expected. If this is dry, so is my humor." There is more to the review, but that about sums up his capable reviewing style.



When did you start participating in beer-related web sites?

BIERGIRL It was about three and a half years ago that I began interactive involvement. I had used some websites before for beer and beer travel research. I found a great community of people who happen to share many of the same interests - not just beer. One of my favorite beer quotes attributed to Hunter S. Thompson is "good people drink good beer.

DR. BILL I've surfed the various websites for years - they are a great source of knowledge for all things beer, from new releases to happenings in the industry to historical information. I've been a member of the Burgundian Babble Belt, going on three years now, a group of Belgian beer aficionados from around the world. Members include everyone from beginning beer geeks to famous writers, brewers and other highly regarded members of the craft beer industry. This group comprises, in my opinion, the foremost group of Belgian beer experts outside of Belgium.

DAVO My first experience with beer-related web siteswas when I first stumbled on BeerAdvocate.com in 2002. For some reason a light bulb in my head went on. I wanted to learn more, and just having an appreciation for good beer was no longer enough. I think, even after more then two years, BeerAdvocate.com, and the many other beer sites that exist (Ratebeer.com and the Babble Belt) all continue to help me grow as a beer appreciator.

VENOM I joined the website BeerAdvocate.com in November 2000. It was pretty much the only beer related site I'd ever heard of and I stuck with it alone for quite some time. I love BeerAdvocate.com (and Ratebeer.com as well) for the opportunity they provide us to share our opinions and thoughts on beer tastes and brewpub atmospheres - and the ability to discuss these amongst fellow beer lovers as well. It's basically the online equivalent of a family style pub. I'm glad I have a stool at the end of the bar and wouldn't give it up for anything.



What value or service do you think participation in beer websites and giving tasting notes has on the industry or brewers?

BIERGIRL First, I don't review beers. I discovered that my interests didn't lie in that direction after a couple of study sessions for the Beer Judge Certification Program exam. If asked to describe a particular beer, I usually respond "the title is Beer Drinker of the Year, not Beer Taster." I'm not sure about the value of tasting notes to a brewer. I suppose some are pleased with the good reviews and upset by the bad. They may give a brewer an idea of his or her strengths and weaknesses. They may also alert a brewer of problems in the brewery or distribution.

DR. BILL Perhaps the greatest service these sights supply the industry is in free advertising - word of mouth can be a great help when thousands of beer nuts are reading about a new brewery or one of its new offerings. Likewise, the same holds true for pubs, restaurants and off-premise sales establishments. Another great benefit, especially for the industry professionals who find their niche in the specialty beer scene, is monitoring trends. On the Babble Belt, we have actually had brewers brew and bottle beers especially for us. One of the pitfalls concerning these sights from an industry viewpoint is the potential for a bad review. I can understand the concern of a brewer if a particular batch of beer is not well received.

DAVO These websites, even with some of their faults, are a great source of information for anyone and everyone that has any inkling of interest in craft beer. Reviews inspire the layman to seek out beers which might be of interest, and it also helps brewers to gauge how their beers might be doing. The forums offer up information that is both valuable to the average beer lover and the industry person. I see these websites that offer up discussions as no different then being at a local pub. The brewer or brewery owner has a chance to talk directly to the consumer.

VENOM I also think these websites have provided breweries, store owners and bar owners with a great insight into the beer loving community's minds. Feedback is necessary for any type of business that thrives on making money off a satisfied consumer, which is what we all really are when you boil it down. I would think many owners and brewers alike have found these websites as a critical part to the way they run their business and perform their job. Of course, some may not give two pence about what some yahoo living in Cupheag, Connecticut, has to say about a brewpub's food in Walla Walla, Washington. But I'd like to think that someone out there reading a review on these websites can take something from what was written.



Do you interact with brewers over the Internet?

BIERGIRL I have several acquaintances in the brewing industry that I do contact on occasion, but it is usually on a more personal note. I don't often contact people I haven't met or don't know personally. I have contacted some of them when I've noticed a forum thread that I think they should be aware of. I did contact a respected brewer, who I also knew personally, about some beer I had purchased which I believed had contamination issues. My concern was more for the brewery that I respected than for the off beer I had purchased. We had a nice exchange about the problem and I felt like I had done a good deed.

DR. BILL You can talk with someone for an hour and be given a dozen compliments, but you always remember that one off comment that someone makes about you or your work that supersedes everything else. Brewers are no different than anyone else in this respect. The ones that know me and appreciate my opinion, whether complimentary or not, are receptive to me. If I want to discuss the attributes or inadequacies of a beer with someone who doesn't know me, I try to approach them with an intelligent discourse. If they have an open mind, I usually have good results. The ones that don't want to hear from me, well it's their choice. I feel that it is their loss if they're not open to the consumer. I feel confident that my knowledge and experience allows me the ability to hold my own in conversation with anyone in the beer community. Call that egotistical if you want, but give me an hour with you over a few pints and I can usually win you over.

DAVO I've been contacted by many brewers about some of the things I've written (on the beer websites). I must say, the first time was a bit surprising. But it was great to get them to talk about my concerns or thank me for my praise. Either way, it just shows how different this industry truly is. It adds a sense of community to it.

VENOM I've received e-mails from brewers regarding my reviews, but it usually is prompted by me initially. I have no problem getting in touch with a brewer to share a recent review. I also have no problem if the email goes the way of the dinosaur without being read. Through these e-mails I've come into contact with a few brewers whom I'd like to think of as friends, even though I haven't met them. One example would be Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Company. Last year, I contacted Vinnie, out of the blue, to ask if it would be possible if he could send a keg or some bottles of a Belgian-style beer to Connecticut for a local festival I was volunteering at. He was so excited just being able to spread not only his name eastward, but to further the cause of extolling the virtues of Belgian-style beers on any audience. The beer he sent, Temptation, proved to be one of the highlights of the festival. Now how many people in Connecticut ever even heard of Russian River prior to this event?"



What makes a good beer package store?

BIERGIRL A reasonably sizable selection of craft beer, domestic and import, with knowledgeable staff, makes for a good beer shopping experience. They should make sure they have enough turnover that the beer is reasonably fresh - for the vast majority of beers freshness is an issue. Displays should expose the beer as little as possible to light while still allowing the consumer to see what is available.

DR. BILL From the consumer point of view, (a store that carries) better beer at reasonable prices. I realize, though, that it's not always that easy. It's risky for smaller businesses to invest their liquid capital in a niche market which probably won't turn over as rapidly as many cheaper, better known products with a proven track record. Get to know your customers. When you see a regular who is constantly trying different brands of the larger micros, like Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada, see if there is anything else that they may be seeking or interested in trying. Also talk to your distributor and see what new SKU's they are carrying. Try one or two new items at a time, allowing for a wider selection for customers like me, while keeping the risk of tying up revenue to a minimum.

DAVO I'll keep this simple: Half Time in Poughkeepsie, New York. This is a super-sized beer store. On my first visit, I literally walked around for 30 minutes, without a cart, just taking in the whole sight. They also offer some unique brews on tap for growler fills, about 11 taps. Simply put, this is a beer destination in itself. I drive the hour and forty-five minutes each way every so often just to see what's new.

VENOM A good beer store to me doesn't mean a "holy shit" selection. Of course, it is nice to walk into a place and get all goo-goo eyed over six aisles of product. But realistically speaking, what's the turnaround on seventy-five percent of that product? A good beer store, to me, should respect its clientele and develop a selection according to what routine customers ask for. Interaction with the local beer community is also important to me. Helping to throw events, tastings and dinners to generate camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts is important. I think many stores have realized that developing a following is critical to maintaining a fantastic beer selection. Word of mouth does wonders amongst the beer geek community.

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