Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Just What Is "Drinkability"?

I can't get away from ads for Bud Light Golden Wheat.

I know, for a guy who doesn't even have cable (and lives in a valley, and so doesn't get a meaningful broadcast signal), I manage to see a shocking number of ads for this stuff. I blame streaming network television, of course, and the Biggest Looser marathon I indulged in while stuck home sick.

But seriously, every twelve minutes I was inundated with an advertisement proclaiming a new beer offering the refreshing taste of wheat with the drinkability of Bud Light.

Ok, I have some idea of what the refreshing taste of wheat is. Wheat in beer, of course, because last time I sat down with a mug full of freshly husked wheat and tried to drink it I severly lacerated my moutn. Well not really. But you get the idea.

In a true beer (a statement that seems to imply that Bud Light Golden Wheat is not a true beer), wheat adds a slightly sweet graniness. I always find that beers with a high wheat content posess a slightly astringent quality, similar to the dryness of a very highly fermented beer. I don't know what causes this sensation, but it seems to naturally balance the malty sweetness that comes from the wheat malt itself.

Anyway, I don't as a rule go for beers with a very high wheat content, but have really enjoyed working with it as a component to add a little "something special" to everything from IPA's to light ales.

But I digress.

This was about bashing Budweiser.

And this idea of "drinkability." What is "drinkable?" Are they saying that their beer can be consumed in liquid form, in exactly the whay that a cup full of ground wheat cannot? Perhaps that it is relatively thin, low in viscosity, and therefore can be consumed more readily than, say, molasses.

But I don't think so. I think that what they are saying is this:

"Don't worry, you won't be asked to take a risk when you consume this beer!"

Yes, "drinkability" is essentially a statement of conformity to the general flavor profile of what we hombrewer's like to call ALL's -- American Light Lagers.

"Don't worry, you won't be challenged to try something unfamiliar and don't need to risk not liking it."

Trying new things always carries a risk. Because, after all, if we spend the energy (time, money, emotional cost) to do something out of the ordinary (say trying a new beer or throwing ourselves out of an airplane with only a rolled up piece of nylon stuffed into a backpack to slow us down), we are investing in that experience. In general, people tend to prefer favorable experiences. It takes a fairly dedicated person to have an unplesant experience and then want to go back for more.

Take, for example, the movie Avatar. I didn't like it. After seeing it, while I was glad that I'd done so (and therefore gotten to partake in the whole big deal). But I did look back on that evening and think that perhaps something better might, ultimately, have been a better way to go. On the way home, my wife and I ended up stopping at a Red Robin and consuming a large amount of spicy chicken wings just so we'd be able to point to something enjoyable about the evening.

So perhaps the same thing could apply to beer. "Hey," says Joe Sixpack, "I've heard of these new craft brews. I should try one." So Joe goes out and buys a sixer of something tasty. Who knows what...let's assume he isn't really into the subtle (or not so subtle) differences between a Maibock and an IIPA. Perhaps he ends up with a few bottles of Old Rasputin or Dogfish 120 or perhaps with something as prosaic as a Mirror Pond. Let us suppose that Joe dislikes this beer. I wouldn't be surprised if this were to happen -- no disrespect to Joe -- because the entire drinking experience would be wildly different from what he'd expect. Hell, a bottle of Dogfish 120 has been known to send experienced beer aficionados to therapy for weeks. Even if he chose something less extreme it would probably not be a light, thirst quenching, (dare I say) "drinkable" beer. Probably something meant to be consumed more slowly, to be savored.

And so our Joe Six Pack, for his daring and courage, would be rewarded with five bottles of something he can't stand sitting there in his fridge. He'd tuck back into the turtle shell of macro-brews and never go outside again.

Until along comes Golden Wheat and loudly says "yes, you can deviate from the dull tired routine of your life and yet take no risk at all that you'll be surprised by change." Yes, Golden Wheat promises change without change.

And that's what this whole blog, that started off talking about beer and detoured through James Cameron's latest overblown film, is about. It is about fear of change. It is about a cowardly refusal to try new experiences (or to stick with them long enough to see if they work out). In a saturated market (let us assume that the macro-brew market is saturated), the only way to gain customer share is to promise that nothing is going to change. And as in macro-brews, so also in so many other areas.

And that is sad.