Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Session #50: The Multi-Billion Dollar Question

For this month's Session, Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog asks us to answer the seemingly simple question of How do they make me buy their beer?

I've been in sales for fifteen years, and believe it or not, have no idea how to answer this month's session question. Perhaps this is because I sell laser diagnostic equipment, which as you might expect, is a lot different than selling beer. This equipment is sold to businesses, governments, and universities, and the underlying concept of selling it is rather simple. These customers are mainly trying to build a laser, or something with a laser in it, and use this equipment to put together whatever they manufacture faster, better, or cheaper. To sell this type of equipment, you have to demonstrate, often with a customer trial, that the system will generate the results the customer is looking for. Often, there are other factors such as the accuracy of the results, how easy the equipment is to use, and of course, what it costs. The customer then decides whether or not the equipment is worth the investment. Of course, other vendors may be involved in the sale, so the decision can boil down to how well each different system does what the customer wants, and what each system costs to get that performance.

Despite what sounds like a straightforward technical evaluation, plenty of unpredictable emotion and other factors usually enter into the decision. The customer may want to the equipment to solve a quality issue he doesn't want anyone know about, or had a bad experience with a similar product she doesn't want to repeat, or was told to fix a problem by his boss and doesn't want to admit he has no idea what your product does or if it will actually solve the problem. Things like this are actually common and in most cases, the customer doesn't want to reveal too much, making it hard to get to the root cause of the buying decision. Which means the real buying decision is hard to figure out, or the decisive factor in making the sale is never understood, even by the customer. A good salesperson will cut through a lot of the vagueness, unpredictability, and elusiveness in the buying process, but in my opinion, there's plenty of uncertainty as to the ultimate buying factors in a technical sale.

And so with this experience of all the uncertainty surrounding dry, technical buying decisions, the retail buying experience of something like beer, which has a lot more personal experience and emotion attached to it, seems infinitely more complicated to describe. So I hope you'll understand that when Alan McLeod asks "How do they make me buy their beer?" my only response can be "Do you freakin' think I have a clue?" Now of course I know what I like and what I don't like, and could give a reasonable explanation why. But consider all the mental calculations going on in my brain as I stare at the beer aisle. There's prior experiences with beers I've had. There's artwork and logos on a bottle of something I've never heard of that suggests the beer inside is either artistic, whimsical, or traditional. There's the price: Too high or too low, and I'm less inclined to buy. There's breweries I know and like, and breweries I don't know but heard good things about. There are beers that bring back warm fuzzy drunken memories. There are beers that bring back bad, painful drunken memories. There are reviews from respected beer writers to consider. There's the suggestion from a friend who swears I should try Blue Moon. There's the style I'm in the mood for, the particular season of the year, special releases, past special releases that may have sat on the shelf too long, whether the beer is refrigerated or not, where the beers are placed on the shelf, what my wife or friends might want to have, among a zillion other things.

All this takes place in about five or ten seconds between before I grab something and put it in my shopping cart. In a bar or restaurant, there's more time and consideration involved, but it's still a pretty reflexive decision. Lots of smart, hard working retail sales and marketing experts work on this multi-billion dollar question, and while they have a lot of insights, they certainly screw up from time to time, and there's still plenty they don't know. But the proliferation of craft breweries provides a highly diverse real world laboratory to test out plenty of marketing ideas. And clearly craft breweries like Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head, and Boston Beer Company have shown considerable marketing savvy. Others have resorted to desperate attempts involving foul sounding beer packaged in dead squirrels. And then there's the unique, distinctive, and extremely curious marketing approach shown by the Palo Alto Brewing Company.

As much as I enjoy the porter style, I don't think I'll be ordering a Barely Legal Coconut Porter with my wife or young daughter. Most men trying to score on a date will recognize that ordering a Hoppy Ending Pale Ale with it's massage parlor artwork lacks the required sophsticated subtlety for the evening's desired conquest, and will likely result in an opposite outcome. It's a pretty safe bet few women will buy beer associating them with pornography and prostitution. Since women compose a large and growing number of beer drinkers, this is a problem in terms of naked capitalism, not political correctness. But perhaps this marketing approach resonates so strongly with beer drinkers having certain attitudes and issues with women that it overcomes these complications.

Maybe someday, I will figure out the vexing mystery of how to make people buy beer, and if that ever happens, feel free to ask me for the answer. I might even take your call while reclining on my yacht.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Safe Haven from the Liquid Giants of Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay on the California coastline 20 miles south of San Francisco is a unique combination of a tourist town, farming village, and fishing port. North of the city, just off the Pacific Coast Highway next to a medium sized boat harbor, lies Half Moon Bay Brewing. I've been always meaning to got to this out of the way destination and so on an overcast Saturday, with few weekend visitors around, finally got the chance to check the place out.

As you might expect for a brew pub on the Pacific Coast, the menu was dominated by fresh seafood dishes. So it wasn't too surprising to find the beer brewed so it paired well with the local catches. For example, the Pillar Point Pale Ale had light nutty maltiness to go with its restrained leafy and herbal bitter hop finish. The Princeton-by-the-Sea IPA was your typical West Coast IPA, with just a whisper of malt to hold back the floral and grassy hop onslaught, except that hop character was decidedly less intense than one usually finds in California. Taking notes on the various brews I tasted, the words "light" and "slightly" come up a lot. My favorite selections with the sweet, milk chocolaty Paddle Out Stout, and Moonglow Barleywine, a highly malt-forward barley wine with plenty of sweet toffee flavors with slight citrus under tone.

The brewpub itself sits in an area protected by a long rocky jetty, creating a calm, almost serene ocean side setting. But venture out along the rocky coastline of nearby Pillar Point, beyond the jetty, and the atmosphere abruptly changes. Here is where the Pacific Ocean is at its most ferocious.

High winds, sea currents, and an ocean floor that rises quickly from great depths as it approaches the coast combine to create huge waves just beyond Pillar Point. Once a year if all the conditions are right, a bunch of big wave surfers gather together on 24 hours notice for famed Mavericks Surfing Contest, to see who's the best at riding waves the size of a small office buildings. The winner is often recognized as the best big wave surfer in the world, and simply just riding a few of these waves earns adulation within the tight-knit surfing community. Every so often, someone trying to tame these waves dies.

You need a jet-ski to get close these liquid giants, and not having one, or willing to risk the turbulent surf even if I did, got as close as possible on land before retreating back to the safety behind the rocky jetty to the quiescence of the inner shoreline.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Beer of the Month: Highway 78 by Green Flash / Port Brewing / Stone Brewing

For this personally hectic month of March which, you may have noticed, led to this blog being a bit neglected, I anoint a collaboration brew between Green Flash, Port Brewing, and Stone Brewing called Highway 78 as Beer of the Month. For those of you who don't know your way around San Diego, Highway 78 runs nearby all three breweries. I discovered this Scotch Ale during my travels to Hollywood earlier this month, a trip that seems like last year.

I found it rather ironic that three breweries who have made most of their reputations shovelling lots of hops into their brew kettles have come together to make a really smooth Scotch Ale with no hop character to speak of. I found the rich, savory, umami flavors dominating with some sweet molasses and smokey undertones rounding it out. There's nothing arresting or hitting you over the head, just a lot of easy drinking flavorful malt goodness. Since brewery collaborations tend to produce rather extreme beers which at time have gone a bit over the top for my taste, I was surprised to find this such a smooth, easy sipping relaxing brew from a collaboration one would least likely expect.

It's been a crazy month for work and family matters. Thank goodness for beers like Highway 78 that provide a respite from the chaos.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Beer Runner in Hollywood

The city of Hollywood rarely evokes thoughts of beer or running, so I didn't know what to expect when my business travels took me there last week. My job involves an extremely unsexy niche' electronic equipment which related to an equally unsexy trade show being held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and with downtown LA hotel prices what they are, we ended up staying to Hollywood to save a few bucks. So the burning question I had, which no doubt most of you have been contemplating for years was "What's the beer running like in Hollywood?"

Things were not looking so good the first night's dinner at a California Pizza Kitchen in a garish mall on Hollywood Boulevard, as our waiter explained the tap list included "local beers" Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Pyramid Hefeweizen. Considering those respective breweries in Chico and Berkeley California are 460 and 370 miles away, neither of those beers were particularly local. I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to explain this to the waiter without being too obnoxious, which for me is no small accomplishment. But can you think of a beer, any beer, associated with Los Angeles? Me neither. I shut up and ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

That night, I wandered around Hollywood Boulevard, looking for interesting places to have a beer or two, only to find one dismal tap list after another. Finally, I stumbled upon the historic Snow White Cafe, which has been around since 1946 according to the sign outside. There's something pitch perfect amongst the dissonance of a hole-in-the-wall dive bar on Hollywood Boulevard decorated in a Snow White and the Seven Dwarf's motif. The jovial, sandy haired, 20-something barkeep wearing a white Playboy T-shirt with an undefinable European accent seemed to fit right in. If your idea of an exotic tap list is Coors Light, Budweiser, Sam Adams, Redhook, and Widmar Brothers, you've come to the right place, and you'll never forget this cheerfully funky place.

Running on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the next morning was a bit of a feat. The hard part is reading the names on all the stars as they whiz underneath your feet while running along without tripping on the uneven sidewalk, and doing a faceplant on say, Tallulah Bankhead's star. Hollywood Boulevard is actually a pretty ordinary street, and a lot of it runs through industrial sections of the city. Bob Hope's star is actually in front of a vacant lot in a rather barren neighborhood. Maybe it was a nicer place once upon a time, but you would think his people could've got him a star in a lot better location. At the end of the first mornings run, I stumbled upon Runyon Canyon Park. I didn't have much time to explore it, but figured I would come back the next morning.

It turned out to be a great find. Runyon Canyon Park is a narrow strip of 130 acres, with one end near downtown Hollywood and the other end way up the canyon at Mulholland Drive, so if you plan to run these trails, get ready for lots of steep ascents or descents. Do so, and you'll be rewarded with great views of both downtown Hollywood and Los Angeles, as well as great view of the "Hollywood" sign from the side, rather than from the bottom of the hill the way most people see it. Lots of people were out each morning walking their dogs, or getting their morning walk or run in. There's no better way to explore a new place than to run around in it, and finding places like this, which provides a unique, local community perspective.

With all due respect to the Snow White Cafe, I decided to consult The Beer Mapping Project, in hopes to find local Los Angeles beer somewhere, anywhere. As it turned out, just a couple blocks away from the Snow White Cafe was Lucky Devil's, basically a burger and barbecue place with about ten excellent taps. Finally! Some local beer to be found. The first LA brew I tried was 1903 Lager from Craftsman Brewing of Pasadena, CA, an interesting bready, slightly sweet and lightly hopped lager. Even better was the Hell Hound Brown Ale from Cosmic Ales in nearby Corona, CA. Brown ales can be a bit of a boring style, but this one had a great combination of bitter, sweet, nutty, and slightly aromatic flavors. If you go to Lucky Devil's, make sure you have room for dessert, as they specialize in Liege waffles, a thick bready Belgian waffle, which they drizzle with this yummy Chimay beer caramel sauce.

That week in Hollywood, I did not get to party with any movie stars. That included Charlie Sheen, who has demonstrated a rather remarkable endurance in his own right. Unfortunately, he seems to have trouble keeping out of fights with porn stars, and prefers cocktails and cocaine over beer, among his rather serious problems. One wonders, if Charlie would just kick back with a few beers with his escorts, and then go for a good run with them the next morning, wouldn't his life be a whole lot better?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Session #49: Regularity is Extraordinary

For this month's Session, Stan Hieronymus of Appellation Beer asks us to write about Regular Beers.

Regularity seems so ordinary and boring, but it's what we all crave. The mind can handle only so much intense stimulation before it effectively cries "uncle", while too much passive relaxation renders us paralyzingly numb. A healthy medium of regularity is why none of us make our home on a roller coaster or in a sensory deprivation tank. Indeed, regularity is quite underrated, especially for those who suffer from depression, anxiety, autism, substance addition, mental illness, brain injuries, and other afflictions where "being regular" is either fleeting or impossible. Finding an ordinary regularity is what we do to get through life.

And so about once a week when neither of us feel like making dinner, my wife and I head down to our neighborhood taqueria after we're both pretty tired and frazzled after a particularly long, stressful day at work. We each get a burrito and a pint of Deadicated Amber Ale from our hometown brewery Devil's Canyon. The roasty malt flavors, its strong earthy character, and its light grassy hop finish goes great with Mexican food. The simple, yet subtlety complex pleasures of a good beer and a burrito allows us to recharge and rebalance so we so can do it all over again tomorrow.

Beer has long been a regulator in civilization and for that, we are grateful.