Oncemade Beer: Good or Bad for Craft Beer?

If you haven’t yet heard about this, the people behind Pintley (an adaptive beer recommendation website based on your personal likes and dislikes) has launched the Oncemade Beer Project, a project in which they help two breweries collaborate on a special beer which is brewed once and only once.

Sounds like quite a good idea, no? Well, it’s actually causing a minor uproar among the craft beer crowd, with some saying that this is a terrible development for the craft beer world.

After the jump. we’ll look into the details of the project, and I’ll analyze the ramifications of this innovative idea.

The first release will be from two small, upstart breweries from Massachusetts. They will each be brewing their version of a wild saison. From the website:

Release #1 features two Wild Saisons from Night Shift Brewing and Backlash Beer. While the saison is a historic farmhouse style, these beers are an unconventional experiment with the style.

Backlash’s beer—a pale saison with a pilsner and wheat malt base—is a minimalist 6% ABV beer with Nugget and Willamette hops. Night Shift’s red saison—boasting a complex malt bill that includes caramel, wheat, rye, and acid malts—will reach over 8% ABV and features Saaz and Willamette hops, as well as agave nectar added to the end of the boil.

Both beers underwent primary fermentation with a traditional saison yeast before aging for two months in a combination of oak barrels. The brewers selected local red wine barrels from Les Trois Emmes Winery in New Marlborough Massachusetts and classic brandy barrels from southern California. The beers are aged on farm-grown Massachusetts raspberries with added Brettanomyces yeast.

The beers will each be in 750 mls bottles, and come in a ” hand-numbered pinewood box …, a signed letter from the brewers, two hand-made wooden coasters, and a piece of one of the barrels.” The total cost will be $45 and are available for pre-order.

First off, let’s talk about the most important part: the beer. I would definitely try these beers. The saison style is one of my particular favorites, and both sound like interesting takes on said style.

I will also say that I have never heard of these two breweries, and from what I can glean from reading reviews about them, they seem to produce good beers, but still have some learning and growing to do. This appears to be the most ambitious beer either brewery has undertaken, with no evidence that they have ever dabbled in barrel aging.

So those are the logistics of the whole thing. Now let’s analyze the project.

The major complaint that most people have with the project so far is the marketing aspect. That is one major difference between craft breweries and their macro counterparts; the big three (Bud, Miller, Coors) are pretty ubiquitous in our society, with billboards everywhere, commercials seemingly on TV every 10 minutes and sponsership of major sporting events. The craft section, in comparison, has little-to-no marketing associated with their companies. Outside of Samuel Adams and Widmer, I can’t think of ever seeing a commercial for craft beer. And unless you’re reading a craft beer magazine or newspaper, you’re not likely to see any print media either.

While it seems that the BMC brews are driven by marketing, the craft beer scene is driven by quality and perpetuated by word of mouth and recommendation. It really gives the scene a feeling that you’re part of something special, and not just being swayed by marketing.

And what is up with that video? I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing was just cheesy. It was interesting to me that the people doing the majority of the talking were people associated with Pintley, not the brewers of the beer. The video would have had more of an impact on me if the people who actually created the beer were shown talking about the beer, not the people with the money who didn’t have any hand in the creation of the product. They kind of come off as sounding kind of oblivious. Getting excited about a beer that will continue “changing for a year!” just comes across as silly sounding to the informed craft crowd who know there are hundreds of beers on the shelves that continue to change over the course of the year. The other claim about “never hearing about a Saison over 8% ABV” is absurd as well. There’s 8 beers in the Top 20 in the Saison style list on Beer Advocate that are over 8%, and many more that are pushing the threshold. It seems like these claims are made with only cursory knowledge of the industry and to bluff craft beer drinkers into thinking this is something awesome. Which leads me to the other problems with this project.

These beers seem to be purely driven by marketing hype, which when you’re trying to capture people who are on the craft beer threshold, is bad for everyone involved. Why? Well, first off, barrel aging is extremely hard to do, and it appears that neither of these breweries have ever tried this before. A lot can go wrong, and many barrel aged beers can come out terrible if done incorrectly. No disrespect to the brewers, but it can take years to master the art of BA, especially when you’re dealing with wild strains of yeast, bacteria, etc. So there’s a good chance that this beer could suck. This could potentially be damaging to Pintley, the brewers (who, if you’re given the label of brewing a bad beer, can sometimes take years to get away from that reputation), and that new customer who took a chance on craft. If it turns out bad, there is a very real chance that their response will be along the lines of “I can’t believe I paid $45 for this craft beer! I’m just sticking with what I know from now on!” We want more people to turn to the craft light, not run away from it.

The artificial hype is another thing I don’t like. There’s already too much hype running through the craft beer community, causing hoarding, shady practices at special beer releases, and it just leaves a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. We don’t need a marketing company making it worse.

Lastly, what’s up with that price? That’s getting up to a fancy wine level, which is another thing we don’t need in this industry. The lower prices, comparative to wine, encourage people to be more adventurous in drinking new things and doesn’t scare the neophytes away. They easily could have kept the pine box and the piece of the barrel (read: fancy coaster) out and lowered the price. But I guess that would decrease the fanciness.

I just realized I’ve been very negative, so I’ll say something positive about the project. It does give lesser known breweries a chance to get their names out there and do something they wouldn’t normally do, and that’s always a plus.

But I just can’t get behind this project. The two breweries could easily have done this themselves, releasing this into their local markets. If they make a great beer, word will get around; they wouldn’t need the marketing. Beer nerds are helpful that way. Barrels can cost a lot, but many upstart breweries have been able to buy their own barrels, so I don’t see why these two couldn’t either.

The marketing behind this just makes it all too manufactured and really takes the spirit out of craft beer, at least for me.

In the end, I like the idea, but I don’t like the execution.

Image from http://www.oncemadebeer.com/

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