Will a beer owned by any other company taste so sweet?

I've spent the last four months traveling around the USA as part of my sabbatical studies. (An obligatory, but no less heartfelt, shout out to Fulbright New Zealand for enabling this to occur!) 

These travels have taken me through Portland, OR, down the California coast and into Phoenix, AZ ... where I'm typing this post whilst sipping on an Oak Creek Brewing Co "Nut Brown Ale", brewed out of Sedona, AZ. Along the way I've had the opportunity to try a bevy of different offerings from a range of different independent (or "craft") breweries - purely, I assure you, in order to further the Fulbright organisation's goal of "promoting mutual understanding between the peoples of New Zealand and the United States of America by means of ... cultural exchange." I can confidently say that the intricacies of the 2012 US elections are a lot easier to understand after a couple of bottles, while after the third they become crystal clear ... until the next morning. 

Some of these offerings I've quite liked. Some I haven't. On the whole, my perception is that the US craft brewery scene is driven by a desire to produce beer that is as different as possible from the bland, rather tasteless stuff produced by industry giants such as MillerCoors and Anhauser-Busch Inbev. So not only are the "standard" beer types such as India Pale Ale or Porter stuffed full of hops until the taste fully explodes in your mouth, but "quirky" offerings such as "chocolate bacon beer" or "pumpkin spiced beer" abound. Which is all very interesting, but a bit lacking in subtlety. Certainly the idea of "quality beer, well made" seems largely subservient to a need to "wow" the drinker at first sip.

A second difference I've noticed is that most craft beers come with an alcohol content that is far, far higher than you'd find in NZ (outside of specialist, limited run offerings). It wasn't unusual to discover the beer I was trying had 7 percent or more alcohol in it - which not only gives it a somewhat different taste, but also changes the effect of drinking even a couple of them. I don't quite know why US craft beer is like this; I suspect it isn't just a production/taste issue, but that excise tax rules may be different over here.

But all this is by way of saying that my various tipples had simply reinforced my happiness that in Dunedin I (literally) had on tap as fine a brewery as Emerson's Brewery. I honestly haven't tried a beer over here that I've enjoyed more than its Clam Stout, while I haven't come across a product that is as "drinker friendly" as Emerson's Bookbinder (which, at 3.7%, means you can safely enjoy a couple of pints with friends without suffering for it the next day).

Which is why, when I read that Emerson's has sold itself to Lion Breweries, which is in turn owned by the Japanese brewing giant Kirin, I felt quite sad. Now, I'm not going to go all moralistic and judgmental and chastise Richard Emerson and the others involved in the business for "selling out" or "selling their souls" or the like. Whatever reason there is for doing this deal - even if the reason is as crude as cashing out their investment of time and effort over the years - is their reason alone. They certainly don't owe me or anyone else an explanation for doing what they want with their business.

 But nevertheless, the fact that this product will henceforth be produced by an outfit that is just another part of a multinational's empire means I won't like it as much and will drink a lot less of it. I'm not saying I'll never touch another drop of the stuff, or anything as dramatic as that - this isn't a stand of rigid principle. Rather, the fact is that I'll be more likely to choose alternatives like Green Man or Harrington's in preference to Emerson's where I can do so - just as I largely stopped buying Mac's when it disappeared into the Lion Nathan stable.

Now, I know the obvious argument against this position. "What", you may say, "does it matter who ultimately owns Emerson's Brewery - so long as Richard Emerson et al is still in charge of brewing it, the beer will still taste the same. So no longer drinking something that you like the taste of just because it's now owned by someone else is simply denying yourself a pleasure for nothing more than some vague, poorly explained, leftish hostility to big business. What sort of moron does that to himself?"

However, I think this argument may be a bit too simple. There is plenty of evidence, like this and this and this, which demonstrates pretty conclusively that our perception of what something tastes like is heavily determined by a range of factors external to the actual thing being tasted. As Jonah Lehrer puts it:

The taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of that alcoholic liquid in the glass. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our sensations and extrapolating upwards. This is because what we experience is not what we sense. Rather, experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories, wine shop factoids and idiosyncratic desires.

So saying that the ownership of Emerson's won't change how the beer tastes neglects the fact that for me (as well as, I suspect, a bunch of other people) a large part of the attraction of the product (and hence its perceived taste) was that it came from an independent brewery that was not simply another label in a multinational conglomerate's collection. Or, to put it another way, the backstory to the Emerson's product - a plucky little local independent founded on a principle of commitment to quality and sense of place, owned and run by the people who make the stuff I am drinking - was a part of what made it taste so good. And now that the backstory has changed to being just another example of a New Zealand success having to sell itself to a larger rival that will then trade on the label's association to increase the share of market it has captured, the taste just won't be the same. 

Which then leads to a problem that might be a bit more important than what beer I am going to drink when I get back to NZ. Because this year we've seen two routes that a flourishing, but still small, local producer can take when its success permits it to take its business to the next level. One is Emerson's - to throw in your lot with a bigger, overseas owned company and allow them to carry you forwards ... but at the cost of handing your destiny (not to mention your future profits) over to your new owners. The other is that followed by Moa Breweries, which (as Hadyn Green discusses here) has sought to keep control of its own company through one of the more objectionable branding exercises in recent times. While I won't take a principled stand never to drink Emerson's again, I can quite clearly say that selling its company in this way means that I'll never drink another Moa product.

Are these, then, the only choices that emerging businesses in New Zealand have? Either become vassals of overseas overlords ... or present yourselves as total douchebags in an effort to emulate what "successful" people overseas look like? Is there no indigenous (in the non-ethnic sense) path to growing your business available in New Zealand anymore? Because if not, well ... that makes me quite sad.

Comments (3)

by James Green on November 07, 2012
James Green

Very eloquently written. I too have wondered about why US craft beers are all so high in alcohol.

Unfortunately, my dilemma is more immediate than yours, but I think that I will still be refilling at Emerson's tonight, because I don't know what is the best choice. Personally, I think the beer will continue to taste great for a while, but I fear the next RWC-esque event, when Lion might decide to do "just one run in Auckland" so they can have their premium Emerson's beer available in sufficient quantity for the event.

On the flip side, while in some ways it would be sad, it would be quite nice if Emerson's Pilsener could supplant the tasteless Steinlager as the nation's premium beer. Wonder how long the restraint of trade is?

by Andrew Geddis on November 07, 2012
Andrew Geddis

James,

I think the excise tax issue might be a real one - in NZ, a beer with 5-9% ABV attracts a significantly greater tax than does one at 5% or less. In comparison (as far as I can tell), there is a flat excise tax paid on "beer" produced in the US irrespective of its ABV. 

I agree with your last point, but. If we have to have a multinational owned product as NZ's "national beer", far far better that it be Emerson's Pilsner (or its 1812 Pale Ale) than f*$@king Steinlager (be it in its traditional or its "Pure" form).

by James Green on November 07, 2012
James Green

There is an excise tax difference in NZ, but it is not a great deal. When I was getting a 1.25L of Emerson's Cerberus (6%+) the other week, the difference was under 50c. They were apologetic at the price difference, but hardly seemed worth mentioning. It might even have been 20c.

Ethanol is an excellent solvent for volatile flavour compounds (which is why de-alcoholised wine and beer taste like s#!*; unclear on Steinlager's excuse). So if your big flavour is better in the US proposition is correct, perhaps it is more to do with getting the bigger flavour. The Cerberus was delicious, but you wouldn't want to drink much in a single sitting.

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