Having a good chat with Charlie Papazian

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28/05/2013 di movimentobirra

Charlie Papazian at the Salone del Gusto 2010

Charlie Papazian at the Salone del Gusto 2010

Charlie Papazian does not need much introduction to beer lovers and insiders. Founder and president of the Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association, creator of the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, writer of some classic homebrewing handbooks, Charlie is in a few words the founder and living spirit of the American beer renaissance as well as one of the most recognized personality in the craft beer world. The way of making, offering, explaining and judging beers is changing quickly in later years and, as for many other trends, very often news come across the Atlantic, new approaches that spark off red-hot debates on the web. I got in touch with Charlie stating him different points of view and asking him his authoritative opinion together with some considerations about actual Italian beer scene. It came out a genuine and very interesting talk in my opinion.

1. (Stefano) There has been and still there is a strong debate in Italy about how modern web communication tools affect beer market and consumer preferences. Information today is much faster than 10 years ago, when the only way to learn about a new brewery or a new beer was speaking with an expert or pick up the car and drive for hundreds of kilometers. Together with this, it become easier to find specialties from all over the world thanks to the work of the importers. On the other side, the quality of the information seems to decrease in some cases as a toll to pay for this wealth. Beyond blogosphere and twitter, the debate is centered on the of web sites like Ratebeer and Beeradvocate. One faction supports the use of that web sites as a mine of updated information and a source of reliable scores (at least taken in mean and grouped by styles) to make comparisons and choices. The other faction claims that there is no control about the authority of the raters, especially the top ones, and that this way of drinking could produce misinformation and wrong judgments. Moreover, they are against the so called “beer safari”, the chase after every novelty, a marketing technique that twists the fair consumption in favor of trendy beer styles and brewers that choose the shortest way to be in the spotlights putting constantly new labels on the market. What is your view about this matter? How important is the beer geeks market?

(Charlie) The development of beer enthusiasts and the free exchange of information is critical to developing markets for beers from small brewers and specialty beers. This dynamic has reduced some of the influence of companies with big money marketing budgets. Now the smallest of brewers have access to exposure and discussion about their beer. Some brewers say all publicity is good publicity. As a small brewer you need to clarify misinformation and facts. But the perception of beer character is always going to be varied and different from one person to another. This is a fact and can never be avoided. In fact it plays into the favor and advantage of interesting beers from small brewers because their beers usually have much more character to discuss than light light lagers which are brand, lifestyle-image and mass advertising driven. Criticism and debate about a beer’s character is an opportunity for continued discussion. The more discussion – the more people will become aware of a beer. Again I emphasize – manage the misinformation and set the record straight, but if it is an opinion – you can never argue about someone’s perception.  This is what makes beer types so interesting.

2.  Another hot topic in Italy are prices. Italian beers are very expensive and the difference in respect to Belgium or Germany seems not fully justified by higher taxes and smaller dimension of the breweries in the eyes of the consumers. Moreover, there is an effort to carry beers to the haute cuisine and the quality restaurants where high prices can be justified more easily. The first time I went to the USA I was positively impressed seeing excellent and fairly priced regular beers (typically APA’s or American IPA’s) abreast of more pricy and elaborated productions. This year, in a summer beer hunting, I saw that Belgian style beers produced in USA are increasing on the shelves, being that beers perceived as top class products and all along imported and sold at higher prices in USA. On the contrary, in Italy Belgian style beers are cheaper than heavy hopped beers, formally for the cost of the hop, and people seems to perceive the strength and the bitterness as something out of the standard taste and a good reason to pay more. In both cases, there is an effort to place product in a new and higher segment of the markets. On the other side, many beer lovers are afraid about a drift that is bringing the beer far from its traditional styles and places of fruition. What do you think about this?

From my observation and perception the cost of doing business, especially as a small business in Italy, is very very challenging. The government doesn’t seem to recognize the challenges of small businesses compared to the favors and advantages and influences the large companies have.  The fact is that in any small business: food, beverage, other things – you are producing speciality products and the consumer must hear your story and recognize that there is value in what you are making. If the beer drinker does not understand the value of the beers produced by small brewers it will be difficult for small brewers to grow in Italy. This is where an Italian small brewers association can be very helpful. Common ground and big picture and clear messages about the business of being a small brewer.

If the prices are going to be high, the beer drinker who understands the value they are receiving for their money should not be hesitant to pay more. Value is not only in the taste of the beer, but the presentation (fresh beer, clean glasses, clean draft lines when serving, correct temperature at serving – never old beer). If small brewers lose sight of maintaining all these values it will be difficult to sustain growth.

I think in a free market there will emerge less expensive beer brands that are made by smaller brewers and also small brewers will sustain higher priced beers with good value that is understood by the beer drinker. The best thing a brewer can do is always pay attention to what their customers are saying and establishing a very close relationship with their group of fans. They can do this. Big companies cannot connect with their customers as intimately as small brewers.

3. Italian beers are often not fully identifiable with a style and sometimes not even with a single tradition. An extensive range of creative ingredients (often local) and procedures are used to realize innovative products, generally paying attention to the final balance. Living in a wine country without an historical beer background makes Italian brewers free to experiment and construct excellent beer, even if someone is getting bored and stigmatize the posh abuse of the last strangest ingredient that add just allure to the label and nothing really essential to the beer. Some American brewers are following the same way. How Italian beers are considered by American beer lovers? How difficult is to set the border between creativity and experimentation compared to marketing and self-referentially?

You make some very accurate observations. I observe the same thing. American beer lovers are largely not aware of the innovation happening in Italy. There is no clear message from any association in Italy communicating the overall Italian trends. It seems like every brewery is marketing for themselves, which is necessary. But there is no Italian beer culture message that is really getting out. There are very few Italian craft beers being sent to the U.S.A. There is of course good reason for this. You cannot build your small business by ignoring the local demand and local support. You cannot simply sustain your small brewery business with exporting. Most small companies cannot assure the stability of their beer over long periods of time and through uncertain conditions of shipping and distribution. Old stale beer would devastate the image of Italian small brewers. So small brewers should take great care in choosing which beers they send for export and assure that it will be handled and stable in character.

Every brewer sets their own balance when prioritizing things like creativity, experimentation, marketing and what you call self referential.

4. I really enjoy beer competitions and I think they are a very useful instrument both for consumers and producers, especially when they are in conjunction with a beer festival. However, it always stroked me the two different approaches in beer classification followed by CAMRA and Brewers Association: while categories at GBBF are a few traditionally identified styles, at GABF there are been a continuous increment of style categorization that seems unrestrainable. While historical and traditional differences in the beer offer between countries are obvious and everyone knows the richness of different style conceived and produced in USA, the need of some styles appear quite obscure and not well justified for an European. In some sense it seems  to us that there is an encyclopedic urgency to categorize every single shades of the beer tasting in a style. Others suggest that the creation of new styles is a useful instrument in a market thirsty of novelties and also that, with thousand of beers at the competition, more styles means more medals and more visibility for good producers and more chances for all contestants. Are not you afraid that this explosion could be confusing and not really useful to consumers and beer culture? In Italy beer competitions for professionals brewers are still young, but here the approach is to classify beers with a reasonable number of quite flexible macro-categories based on a mix of objective parameters (kind of fermentation, grado plato, IBU, EBC color, ingredients) that in practice strive for aggregating contiguous beer styles without mentioning them and without stressing style adherence. What do you think about this approach?

You and I are having this conversation. It is a reflection of the 1 million other conversations beer drinkers are having. Agree or disagree. You cannot have a debate nor a passionate discussion without differences of opinion. And beer drinkers are very opinionated for sure.

Beer styles have expanded largely because brewers are creating trends. Some of the style categories will come and go. Some will stay for a hundred years or more. Pilsner was a strange style when first introduced. Now it is the norm.

Also what drives style differentiation are competitions. The desire for increasing the number of medals is NOT the reason why Brewers Association expands style descriptions. No. It is that the market continues to develop and evolve and beer drinkers are wanting to talk about certain trends in beer types and get excited about what they like and what differentiates their tastes from other people’s tastes.

I think let the market develop. Assist in the expansion of ideas. When we begin to consolidate beer types by numbers and degrees we are falling into the “trap” of “one size fits all.”  This is certainly not what small brewers are all about.

Is it inconvenient for competition organizers to have so many styles? Yes, maybe. But convenience is NOT the reason to determine what styles are identified in the market and which are not. The art of competitions is to determine what is trend and what is a flash fad.  What is the common taste and character descriptions that are in the minds of beer enthusiasts. Those who are determining beer classifications need to be open minded and very tuned into what is in the best interest of the beer drinker.

Is the beer drinker getting saturated with too many beer types?  Maybe someday in the distant future.  But for now the market and sales of special beers from small brewery is so very very tiny, there is a long way to go before that question needs to be considered.  The conversation needs to be fed and continue to be exciting.

Stefano Ricci

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