Monday, August 3, 2015

Where art thou Shocktop?

Shock Top Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat
Early last year, I started getting e-mails from the Shock Top. Trying to generate some buzz of their new release, Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat, they offered me a sample which I reviewed.  The beer was the product of interesting ideas, the flavors  just clashed a bit and the combination just didn't quite work. My wife was less kind, finding its taste highly artificial. A couple weeks later, a Shock Top public relations person contacted me about an upcoming new release, Twisted Pretzel Wheat and even made Shock Top Brewmaster Jill Vaughn available for an interview. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Interviewing Jill Vaughn presented some of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make in the six years writing this blog. Obviously, Shock Top was making Vaughn available not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to help sell beer. Anheuser-Busch was positioning Shock Top as a "craft beer", competing with smaller breweries and in my opinion, putting out a product inferior in taste to similar offerings from other breweries. While interviewing Jill Vaughn was definitely news worthy and wanted to give my readers the opportunity to hear her story, I didn't want the interview to turn into a public relations bonanza for Shock Top. Thus, I choose my questions carefully for the interview. 

With the Shock Top public relations person joining the phone interview, I asked Jill Vaughn a number of questions on how she came up with Twisted Pretzel Wheat and some of the other Shock Top beers. At the end of the interview started to come some more difficult questions. First, I asked her if she read the reviews of her beers some on sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate, where some pretty scathing reviews of Shock Top's beers were posted. She took a view deep breath and said she didn't visit those sites very often.  

I pressed further, asking "In a lot of craft beer circles, Shock Top with its association with A-B and its larger parent AB InBev is viewed as part of the Evil Empire, a “faux craft brewery”, and there’s a lot of negativity directed at Shock Top and the beers you brew.  What do you think about that?  How does that affect you?"  

A tough and somewhat confrontational question to be sure, but also a fair one. Given some of the ridicule and derision Shock Top gets in the craft beer community, I wanted to get her point of view of that. She was the person behind the beer lots of people were sneering at and this was an opportunity to tell her side and put a human face on what had been the focus of a lot of unwarranted derision.

Shock Top Brewmaster Jill Vaughn  in a promotional video

The Shock Top public relations person clearly didn't see it this way.  "Is this interview almost over?" she huffed after Ms. Vaughn gave a careful and thoughtful answer. It was late afternoon on a Friday and it seemed like both of them would much rather be tossing back Shock Tops at Happy Hour somewhere than deal with some wannabe Mike Wallace of beer. When we were done, they thanked me for the interview and the Shock Top PR person chimed, "We would really hope you get a chance to try Twisted Pretzel Wheat and we'd love to get your feedback."  She talked about keeping me up to date on future developments at Shock Top.

Funny, that was fifteen months ago and I haven't received so much as a single press release from Shock Top ever since.

Update: On November 10th, 2015, an independent PR firm contacted me about reviewing Shocktop's Twisted Pretzel Wheat.  So I guess whatever embargo I might have been under is over.

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