Beer critic

But have you tried them yet?

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There’s been a lot of talk lately – both in beer blogs and on Twitter – about the Steamrail range of beers just released by Coles. All of it negative. But there has been one thing that has been noticeable by its absence is all this negativity. While they’re castigating the beers, no-one seems to say a word about how they actually taste. Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion – they haven’t even tried them yet.

So they’re disliking the image of the beer, rather than the actual beers themselves. Which I find a bit weird. And not dissimilar to the guy who chooses to drink Crown Lager because he thinks it makes him look cultured rather than drinking it because he likes the flavour.

Myself, I don’t drink for image. I drink for the flavour. I couldn’t care less who made the beer, all I judge the beer on is how it tastes. That’s why I don’t say I drink “craft beer” but rather that I drink “good beer”. And if CUB happen to crank out a dynamite hefeweizen one of the days (but I’m not expecting they will) I’ll happily drink it without the slightest feeling of guilt or shame.

Much of the objections stem from the fact that this is a big supermarket releasing a range of “craft beers”. Because the idea of “craft beer” is defined everything else other than the taste of the beer – who made it? Are they part owned by some big brewer? Do they make it themselves?  Or is it contract brewed? Is it made in a big factory somewhere or in a garage in the middle of nowhere? Can I buy it everywhere or is it hard to find?.

But really, unless you were told it was contract brewed you would never. ever be able to taste that from a glass of the beer. Likewise the percentage of big brewer ownership or any number of other things that define “craft beer”. I get why brewers would be pissed off at this intrusion from Coles – they’ve built up this market from nothing and then once there’s a bit of money in it, this big supermarket chain comes waltzing in. If I was a brewer I’d be pissed off too.

But I’m not a brewer. I’m a consumer who just wants tasty beer. Which is not meant to be read as a defence of supermarkets entering this arena – I simply think they should be judged on the same merits as everybody else – what does the beer taste like? That’s why I happily write-off the Woolies Sail and Anchor range, because it is ordinary at best. If I never drink another bottle of that stuff I’ll be happy.

In fact, that Sail and Anchor range is the comparison most critics of Steamrail draw, which only further proves they haven’t tasted the beers. Because if they did, they’d realise that, for the most part, the comparison should be with James Squire. For two of the three beers are easily superior to Mr Squire’s range. The odd one out is the Ghost of Eyre pale ale, which has some very slight citrus flavour but is dominated by maltiness.

Much better is the Lucky Amber ale. I had some JS Amber Ale over Christmas and found it unpleasantly nutty. So much so that I very much regretted buying a six-pack of the stuff. The Steamrail amber dials down the nuttiness quite a bit, which lets a smidge of sweetness from the malt stick its head through.

But the true winner of the trio is the Gold Digger golden ale. I’ve never been much for this style because I find it pretty dull in the flavour stakes – the JS golden ale is a perfect example of this. But the Gold Digger surprised me with some lovely delicate fruity aromas and flavours, which danced lightly on my palate before slipping away rather than sitting there the whole time. I’d only bought one bottle of this and I immediately wished I’d bought a six-pack of it.

None of the above means that you have to like these beers. But it is fair to at least try them before laying the boot in.

Would I drink them again?: No to the pale, sometimes to the Amber and a big fat yes to the Gold Digger.

UPDATE: A wise man named William, whom I follow on Twitter, read this and offered a neat summation of things. A summation I think explained my point a bit more clearly than I did. In essense, he said it was okay to criticise the way the beer was being marketed without having tasted it but not okay to criticise the beer itself without knocking one back. And that’s what I was getting at – just in a more long-winded fashion.

13 replies »

  1. It just proves that everybody’s tastes are different. I have tried all 3 (admittedly I didn’t pay for them) and thought the Amber was the best of a bad bunch. Marketing gimmick at it’s best! Well done Coles!

    • Yep, everyone’s taste is indeed different. I’m certainly not saying everyone should like them, just that they should try them first. If after trying them, they think they’re rubbish, then criticise away.

      • I’m probably happy to not like they way these beers are marketed/portrayed and not drink them accordingly. The only way I’ll be trying them is if someone else hands me one, and until then I’ll say nothing about the quality of the beer. As for needing to try them? there are so many beers that I want to try that these bad boys are not making it onto the shopping list

  2. Bought a six pack of each a week ago and set out to sort the beer from the bull, so to speak. But we need to keep in mind that this issue is NOT about the beer. It’s about companies ‘claiming’ one thing while doing another. Cashing in on craft is fine – it’s the premium end of the beer category and the only one growing in volume and value – it’s a capitalist model.

    The real problem (for craft/small producers/beer community) is new drinkers being led to believe that a product is similar to others in quality when the only similarity is labelling style. Let the consumer decide if they want to buy beer made as a tool to boost sales, please shareholders and compete with the only other big player in the game or if they want a beer brewed to be enjoyed by a drinker.

    Having said that, blogs like this, Twatter and the other beer websites bringing attention to this issue can only help provide information to assist drinkers make a choice based on fact and not faux.

    • I honestly think beers like these serve at “gateway beers” like James Squire. People try these and go, “hey, there’s more to beer than bland lager”. Some will be happy to drink these and not move further along the good beer road – just like some people do with James Squire.
      But others will make this trip, once they find out what beer can taste like.
      But I have no problem with full disclosure about where a beer comes from.

  3. People buy beers for a whole lot of reasons. It’s not as simple as saying it is for ‘flavour’ or ‘image’.

    An increasing number of people want to support small breweries because they like the diversity that these breweries are bringing to the landscape and want to ensure that small breweries survive, not because it makes them look cool. When a huge company like Coles makes a beer and doesn’t disclose their involvement by running it through a company such as Australian Beer Connoisseurs that no one associates with Coles, it makes it very difficult to identify the origin of the beer.

    I say this as someone who wrote a negative post about the beers. It came after I spent 5 days going through several people at Coles and their public relations firm trying to get one question answered: “where is it brewed”. They would not answer. It is that sort of contempt for transparency from a large company that sees many people want to buy from and support small breweries. Now that people feel are starting to feel this way, Coles wants to hide its involvement.

    If people are really buying for flavour, it would do no harm whatsoever to put “Made for Coles by XY Contract Brewery” instead of “Brewed and Bottled for Australian Beer Connoisseurs”. That’s just being transparent.

    • Matt,
      I totally agree about the idea of Coles being transparent and putting their name on the back label. Because I’m of the opinion that, broadly speaking, it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference to their sales.
      With that attitude in mind, it does make me curious about why Coles appears to intentionally avoided putting their name to it. It wouldn’t change my feelings towards the beer itself, or stop me buying it again, but it does cause me to raise an eyebrow (as does the more recent Byron Bay Brewing/CUB issue).
      Because, really,you try and hide something and that just makes everyone want to know what you’re hiding..
      I read the negative post you refer to, which was kind of why I later added the update to clarify things. I wanted to point out that criticising the marketing of the beer and the beer itself were two distinct things, That you could criticise the former without having to try the beer but not the latter.

  4. I have no idea whether people would buy it or not…cost is a big factor for many people, but as you say, it looks suspicious when they don’t. These companies spend lots of money on market research and focus groups and I just wonder whether they now how on the nose their brands are? I don’t know and of course, they’ll never say.

    Funnily enough, I had already written a fairly positive article about the beers themselves and had just tried to get some more information from their PR people about it. It was the lengths that they went to to avoid answering that led to the post made in frustration. They really do make it look like they want to hide these things…

    • It has been quite a misstep on their part – one that’s ended up overshadowing the beer itself. Because now everyone’s talking about the marketing rather than the beer, which I presume is so not what Coles would have been hoping.

  5. And that’s not a bad thing in my view. You want people to talk about the beer? Be open and honest and don’t give them a reason not to. Bizarelly, the Dalai Lama tweeted this a few hours after I ran the story (and he doesn’t even follow Brews News!)

    Dalai Lama‏@DalaiLama
    If you are honest, truthful, and transparent, people trust you. If people trust you, you have no grounds for fear, suspicion or jealousy.

  6. @Matt: I think it is certainly possible that having the Coles name on the beer could make a difference to quite a few people.

    For me the issue goes beyond brewing. In a situation where we have a market duopoly ‘homebrand’ products are a huge threat to consumer choice. They are aggressively pushed by the supermarkets,take shelf space from other brands, and are sold at a lower price point than other brands can achieve. Quality of these products aside, this leads to fewer brands being available in the supermarkets. Once homebrand is basically the only choice, why worry about quality if it can be made cheaper?
    I’d avoid buying this beer for that reason alone even if it was a brilliant brew.

    That aside, I did have a taste of the ‘Ghost of Eyre’ on the weekend. To me it tasted soapy with a bit of sugar. A dud batch possibly, but doesn’t bode well.
    That said, the guys who bought it (as it was the cheapest ‘craft’ beer in the shop) thought it was drinkable, so maybe I was just being picky.

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