Monday, May 4, 2009

Mass or Niche Markets and Incentives

I had to stop at a Safeway to get some milk on the way home alst night and on the way to the dairy case I spied a bottle of Deschutes Red Chair IPA. Well, I have a duty to sample it for the loyal readers that tune in for my erudite discussion of economics, right? Sure. Seriously, this is a magnificent beer - hop-forward IPA you get seriously strong hop aroma and taste but without the heavy bitterness of, say, a Hop Henge. Wow - what a wonderful result. Good thing I only bought one. It is medium bodied, slightly more malty and darker than a typical IPA, but exceptionally balanced and eminently quaffable. Yummy.

It made me think of the other new beer I have tried recently: after a long wait my local grocery finally started stocking 'Drifter' from the Bros. Widmer. This beer followed a similar philosophy, they used Summit hops to create a medium bodied pale ale that has the nice citrus-y aroma characteristic of Summits but without the bitterness.

What is interesting is the completely different approaches to the business of beer these two offerings represent. Drifter is a fine beer (but a bit far from my personal sweet spot - I like bitter): it is a mild, medium bodies pale ale that is designed to please the masses. My immediate thought was: "this is their Fat Tire fighter." In my mind this is a beer deliberately designed for mass appeal to a defined market that supports a huge volume of Fat Tire sales. "Let's go for that market," I can hear them saying. And, with luck, it will - it is a better beer than Fat Tire.

Deschutes is busy these days (with a stable of exceptional standard beers in place) pushing the fringes with specialty beers, cementing its reputation not only as an outstanding volume beer producer, but a truly top class boutique brewery as well. By doing this, I imagine they think they can keep up their reputation and keep getting noticed and thus the sales of the standard line up will be bolstered.

Widmer does this too, of course, but I wonder how much being a public corporation changes the incentives. Does always worrying about the return to investors cause a more intense focus on producing beers with mass appeal? I don't know, but I suspect so. It doesn't really matter - as long as they keep making good beers, I am happy to have both around. Oh and someone had switched out a couple of Drifers with some Hefewizen, and drinking them took me way back to when it all began and reminded me that, though my tastes have moved on, it is still a really good beer.

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