When Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock told me that his next column would be about "beer vs. wine", I could have been worried that it would be the tiresome 'beer is the new wine' trope again.
But I wasn't.
Kitsock writes his twice-monthly column with concise prose, allowing his sources to frame the story. In this case, he examines appearances, food and food business, and sales figures and consumer buying patterns.
Marnie Old, a Philadelphia sommelier who co-wrote the book "He Said Beer, She Said Wine" with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery's Sam Calagione, says beer and wine are stealing a page from each other's books.
"Wine was never designed to be evaluated by itself. Wine styles emerged because they were pleasant with food," Old says. In a similar way, more breweries are emphasizing how well their beers pair with food.
To Go Upscale, Put a Cork in It
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
But, why, Kitsock asked, do many restaurant still maintain "paltry"beer lists, when compared to their more extensive wine lists?
Thomas Cizauskas [ahem], who sells beer and wine for wholesaler Select Wines, suggests that many restaurateurs simply haven't been exposed to the full spectrum of beer flavors: "That's where education is important."
Kitsock noted that beer may have a perceived value that wine does not.
Off-premises sales of high-end wines (over $20 a bottle) are down 5.7 percent so far this year <...> Craft beer sales are up 6 percent. <...> Consumers, speculates [industry analyst Bump Williams of BWC in Stratford, Connecticut], tend to see an $8.99 six-pack of a pale ale or a Belgian-style witbier as a better value than, say, a $20 bottle of chardonnay.
The 4th of July holiday has traditionally been a high water mark for beer sales in the US. Not so this year. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes,
Heineken sales sank 18 percent from the previous year in grocery, convenience and drug stores during the two-week period ended July 5, followed by Budweiser at 14 percent. Corona Extra sales dropped 11 percent, while Miller Lite declined 9 percent and Bud Light fell 7 percent. Coors Light sales held up better, falling less than 1 percent from a year ago.
Wall Street Journal
Real Time Economics
27 July 2009
To be fair, the WSJ piece also noted that cheaper beers —or as the industry calls them “subpremium” beers— increased in sales over the same period.
I don't have the numbers for more expensive 'craft beer' (the industry calls it 'specialty beer') sales for that period, but in all of 2008, sales of craft beers grew by 5.9%, outpacing 'standard' beers. They have been projected to do so again in 2009.
The Post's Kitsock titled his piece "To Go Upscale, Put a Cork in It". That's a reference to beer that is packaged in wine-sized 750 milliliter bottles, often re-fermented in the bottle, and then sealed with a cork and cage, as is sparkling wine. It's a growing trend for craft beers. And a relatively expensive (wine-like?) one for consumers.
Cowboy Café is a northern Virginia pub. It lists its beer choices under three headings: Bottled, Draft, and ... Corked.
That may be an intentionally amusing dig at wine. For wine, 'corked' is a term to be shunned; it indicates a major flavor fault. For Cowboy Cafe, it's a collection of highfalutin beers.
That wine-beer convergence thing, again.
'More expensive' is relative, but expect to pay a minimum of $8.99/$9.99 for a ' craft' beer 6-pack. In 2008, the assumption was that $10.99 might be the tipping point for consumers. That price point may be reached this year. Will it be a tipping point?