A brewery’s tap handles are its mark. They make a statement about the brewery’s identity. The row of handles is often the first thing a beer drinker looks at when walking into a bar. A distinctive handle instantly alerts consumers to the brewery’s presence in the lineup and draws them in to purchase a pint.
And so it was curious when I walked into the recently opened Clockwerks Brewing and saw a row of handles appropriated from other breweries. Rather than expressing the steampunk aesthetic of Clockwerks, there they were, boldly declaring the brand identities of Abita, Alaskan, Goose Island, Tallgrass, Odell and Sam Adams, but painted gold as though an attempt had been made to hide the fact.
What does it say about a brewery that gives so little thought to such an important brand identifier? The appropriation of other’s branding certainly raises questions about the owners’ ethics – not to mention the potential legal issues involved. Tap handles are the property of the brewery that produced them – reuse is theft. Tap handle design is protectable under trademark law, raising the ugly specter of infringement lawsuits.
But to me this omission sends a more important and disturbing message. By neglecting this important detail of identity, the proprietors are signaling, “We don’t care.”
The space at Clockwerks has a similarly appropriated feel. It’s not an unpleasant space – although the combination of dim, yellow-tinged lighting and copper/gold, metallic paint did make it somehow difficult on my eyes. But it feels unfinished. It’s as though the steampunk vision has been vaguely superimposed onto a room intended for another use. The look is there in the color scheme and clockwork wall sculpture. But touches like exposed mechanicals, Edison lightbulbs and fixtures made of plumbing pipe are so commonplace now that they don’t really take it where I, at least, want it to go. Steampunk is a busy aesthetic filled with anachronistic excess. Missing are the gaudy Victorian era gewgaws and shining brass Rube Goldberg contraptions. Just a few small touches of this type would complete the theme. It’s like the tap handles. If steampunk is your identity, do it all the way. Detail. Identity. But maybe that’s just me.
Clockwerks’ website is another piece that suggests a lack of attention to detail and concern. Unless there is some secret navigation that I can’t find, it consists of just a cover page with the logo, address and open hours. There is no information about the beers, events, menus, history, or anything else. The Facebook page reveals more, but even there the information is limited.
What about the beer? The focus at Clockwerks is lower-alcohol, sessionable ales and lagers. I was there on two consecutive nights and drank a number of the available beers. Once common theme tied them all together – fermentation issues.
Any brewer worth their salt will tell you that fermentation is the most important step in brewing. The entire process of brewing is all about creating the best environment for yeast to do its thing. Fermentation effects every aspect of beer character from color and body to malt character, sweetness and the expression of hop flavor and bitterness. Proper attention to fermentation is critical.
Attenuation is the term that refers to the amount of sugar that yeast consumes during fermentation. Under-attenuation – or incomplete fermentation – leaves behind a high level of residual sugar, resulting in a sticky-sweet beer that tastes like wort. It is the most common flaw that I find among “craft” brewers. Without exception under-attenuation was the signature character of the beers I tasted at Clockwerks. Other fermentation related issues can included excessive fruity esters and buttery diacetyl. These were also present.
I wasn’t actually there as a writer, so I didn’t take detailed notes. That’s also why I regrettably don’t have any pictures. But here are my quick recollections of a few of the beers I tried.
Kölsch – Three shades too dark for the style, under attenuated, overly fruity, diacetyl, too much toasted grain character, not enough bitterness or hop character.
ESB – Under attenuated, overly fruity, diacetyl, not enough hop bitterness or flavor.
Rye Pilsner – Under attenuated, diacetyl
Alt – Under attenuated, diacetyl, not enough hop bitterness of flavor.
Witbier – Under attenuated, overly fruity, heavy for the style
As the “craft” beer movement – industry, ask let’s call it what it is – continues to blossom, illness marketing is more and more the name of the game. In 2009 I toured the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma, California. Someone asked the tour guide how large their marketing budget was. The response was a chuckled, “We don’t have a marketing budget.”
Fast forward to today and every brewery – new, old, large, small – had better have a solid marketing and sales plan in place if they want to thrive. As competition intensifies, I suspect they will need them to merely survive.
Many breweries now hire PR firms. At some it is next to impossible, even (or maybe especially) for media, to communicate directly with someone from the brewery. All communications go through the PR representatives.
Surly Brewing is a case in point. Once upon a time it was relatively easy to get a question answered by owner Omar Ansari or former head brewer Todd Haug. Nowadays, even simple questions directed to personal emails receive responses from representatives at One Simple Plan, followed up by second emails inquiring if the needed information had been received. Typically the answer is no.
I don’t fault them for this. As frustrating as it might be for me, it is as it needs to be for them. As Surly grows, their time becomes increasingly valuable. As I already mentioned, marketing is now the name of the game and PR firms are part of it.
It could be argued that much of Surly’s success has come from marketing. I’m not knocking the beer. The beer is great. If it weren’t, the marketing would not have worked as well as it did. But Surly’s cantankerous image and “do it our way” persona appealed to drinkers at the beginning of the current “craft” revolution. Drinking Surly made one a rebel. The image captured the zeitgeist in a way that I think surprised even the folks at Surly. But they recognized it early, manipulated it, and were able to capitalize on that oeuvre. It was savvy marketing that built their brand.
In a piece for Mspmag.com about Haug’s resignation from Surly and subsequent hook-up with Three Floyds, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl opined that many of Surly’s more recent beers are decidedly un-surly. I would counter that this has always been the case and that it was marketing that made them seem so over the top. Hell is one of the brewery’s top-selling brands. It’s a simple, golden lager. The now-retired Bitter Brewer was a slightly Americanized English Bitter – hardly an extreme style. Bender is a brown ale. And Cynic is nothing more than a traditional Saison – and a comparatively uninteresting one at that. Surly’s lineup has always consisted largely of beers that did not go to extremes. The “extremes” were mostly minor tweaks and an aggressive public image.
Even the more extreme brews aren’t so extreme when viewed in a larger context. Furious was fierce for the region at the time of its release. But according to Haug, it was modeled on West Coast-style red ales – now called American Strong Ales by the BJCP – that already existed in abundance elsewhere. Think Bear Republic Rocket Red or Stone Arrogant Bastard. Abrasive is one of many double IPAs. Even Darkness has its antecedents – notably Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, which Haug will presumably now have a hand in brewing. But image and branding made the Surly beers feel bigger, bolder, and badder than they perhaps really were.
Todd Haug’s departure presents Surly with a dilemma. In her piece, Moskowitz Grumdahl quotes Haug as saying, “They marketed the shit out of me.” Indeed, Haug was the public face of Surly. I’m sure many Surly fans couldn’t identify Omar Ansari if they saw him. But everybody knows Todd Haug. Although he is one of the kindest and gentlest men in brewing, his outward demeanor – tat covered, goat bearded, heavy metal axe man – personified the Surly image. He looked the part of the devil’s spawn. He exuded an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Todd Haug put a personal face on Surly’s marketing.
So what is Surly to do now? I have no concern for the future of the beer. There are plenty of passionate and talented brewers there to keep the taps flowing. But what will become of the image? As the brewery gets bigger, it will be difficult to maintain the bearing of rebellious upstart. As people and entities mature that stance starts to look curmudgeonly. Even Stone Brewing’s arrogant attitude has softened of late. And who will be the public face that makes the marketing a tangible, touchable thing?
The Surly crew is smart. They clearly know how to market. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.
As a last tip of the hat to Todd, I’ll take a look at his last batches of Damien, Darkness, and Anniversary beer.
Here’s my notes:
Damien Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American Black Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
Appearance: Opaque black. Faint ruby highlights. Appears clear. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.
Aroma: Toasted bread. Coffee. Light Oreo cookie chocolate. Medium-high Melon and tangerine hop notes provide bright contrast to deep, rich roast malt character. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low alcohol. Low dark fruit esters. Pine.
Flavor: Malt forward with ample supporting hops. Chocolate – semi-sweet. Low coffee. Smooth café mocha. Low caramel and bread crust. Vanilla. Melon and tangerine hops bring bright contrast to the roasted malt. Lifting. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Low alcohol. Low fruity esters. Something vaguely vinous. Finish is dry with lingering chocolate and melon/citrus/pine hops.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Creamy. Velvety. Medium carbonation. Not warming. Not astringent.
Overall Impression: Like a lightweight, less-intense black IPA. Smooth, velvety chocolate countered by bright tangerine/pine hops. Easy to drink and drink a few.
Aroma: Malt forward with moderate hop accompaniment. Coffee. Dry chocolate cookie. Licorice and dark fruits – raisins or dates. Alcohol is apparent – isopropyl. Moderate pine resin hops. Very low impression of sweetness.
Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, tan foam. Cascades in glass. Excellent retention. Black and completely opaque. Appears clear. Faint ruby highlights.
Flavor: Roast malt driven with subtler, malty sub-flavors and moderate hop support. Chocolate dominates – dark chocolate syrup with dry chocolate cookie at the end. Low coffee grounds. Caramel. Similar date/raisin dark fruits from the aroma. Licorice. Burnt black malt character in the finish, but not the primary roast note. Subtle undercurrents of vanilla and maple. Maybe even a hint of blackberries? Medium-high sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-low. Tar. Medium-low, pine resin hop flavor. Alcohol is apparent – helps cut the sweetness without crossing the line to solvent. Finish is semi-sweet to sweet with lingering cookie-like, dry roast, dark fruit, and caramel.
Mouthfeel: Full body. Smooth and silky. Medium-high alcohol warming. Low carbonation. Not astringent.
Overall Impression: Okay, I’ll be that guy that I often deride. It’s not as good as last year. My notes from last year are much the same as this year. But last year the pine felt more intense, the overall feeling was less sweet, less heavy. At least in my memory. But I’m probably wrong. Still, this is good. Alcohol is high, but not quite intrusive. Love the chocolate syrup. And the satin texture is to die for. As always, whacks you in the head at first and then comes back to deliver lots of subtle complexity.
Ten Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Old ale aged on toasted sassafras
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
Aroma: Floral alcohol. Bread. Chocolate. Toffee and brown sugar. Dark fruits. Vaporous alcohol is the dominant note. Camphor. High caramel with background vanilla. Very light earthy/herbal hops. Dark fruit esters – date and cherry.
Appearance: Full, creamy, beige head with good retention. Reddish brown/mahogany with red highlights. Clear.
Flavor: Malt forward with low hop accompaniment and alcohol. Malt is the dominant flavor – caramel and vanilla prominent. Background notes of milk chocolate and dark fruits. Alcohol is definitely a component – floral and verging on solvent/hot. Hop bitterness is medium, but still remains subservient to the massive malt. Low herbal/earthy hop flavors. Dark fruit esters – dates and maybe candied cherry. Sweetness is medium-high. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with lingering bitterness, alcohol, caramel and cherry fruit. Chocolate covered cherry or Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. Wood impression is missing. Or is that maybe a little root-beer character in there?
Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Medium-high alcohol warming, but not quite hot. Low astringency.
Overall Impression: Let it warm up for a long while. Complexity doesn’t come through until its temperature is up there. Alcohol is a bit of a distraction, would do well with some age perhaps. Try it again in two years. Where’s the toasted sassafras? Am I missing something? I admit that I don’t know what toasted sassafras tastes like, so maybe I am. But my Boy Scout experience with sassafras leads me to expect root beer flavors. A generally pleasant sipper, but think it’s one of those rare beers that could be better in a couple years.