Friday, October 15, 2010

Black Star Beer

I was, apparently, among many writers of all things beer in the Northwest who were hit with a marketing blitz surrounding Black Star beer.  I will give you my impressions of the beer of course, but as this is Beeronomics what I am most interested in is the economics of the whole endeavor to make Black Star a regional and maybe even national brand.

The Backstory

It took me a little digging to finally understand that Black Star is not the name of the brewery but of the particular beer (something I will return to shortly).  Black Star is the flagship brew of the Great Northern Brewing Company which has a local tie to Portland: its founder is Minott Wessinger, who is a fifth generation brewer and just so happens to be the great grandson of Henry Weinhard himself.  The brewery was founded in 1994 in Whitefish Montana and is a traditional gravity flow brewery.  The creation story from the Black Star website:

Minott grew up learning about beer from his father, Fred Wessinger, at the Blitz-Weinhard Brewery in Portland, Oregon. In 1979, the family sold Blitz-Weinhard. After 14 years away from the hustle and bustle of daily brewery life, Minott and Fred decided to build The Great Northern Brewing Company and began brewing Black Star Double Hopped Golden Lager.

I had not previously heard about Great Northern but I did a little digging and found that it has a history in the Northwest. Here is an interesting Weiden+Kennedy ad from the eighties apparently for the beer in a early Northwest push.

[The sound, for me at least doesn't seem to be working, to see the video on its host site, go here]

Which means, of course, the beer pre-dates the brewery.  I suspect it was contract brewed at the time, perhaps even by Blitz-Weinhard, but of this I know not. According to Wikipedia, Black Star disappeared for 7 years and is only now making a rebirth in 2010.

Now, quite evidently, they are making a very big push to make the beer a major regional brand, if not national. To do so they must have either major expansion plans or are ready to contract brew because their brewhouse is, apparently, only a 20 barrel system (another local tie: the brewhouse was designed, manufactured and installed by Oregon's very own JV Northwest).  And in fact they make reference to now also brewing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which clearly means they have contracted with a major brewery to churn out the bulk of the beer.  Nothing wrong with this strategy, by the way, I only mention it as I am trying to dig into the business model.

And in fact a little more digging and we find that Wissinger's umbrella company is called the McKenzie River Corporation, based in SF, and responsible for St. Ides and other fine beverages like Le Tournament Vert absinthe.  So the beer-as-brand strategy makes more sense given the provenance of the beer. How much of the down-home, family ties to brewing, following his passion stuff is true or the stuff of Madison Avenue fiction remains a question, but to me it doesn't really matter, the beer is either good or not.

By the way, the Great Northern brew house itself is beautiful and they have lots of slick promotional videos that show it.  Drool.

The Beer

Before going on further about the company, the business model and the marketing we should discuss the beer itself.  This is but one of Great Northern's beers and so it is instructive that they have chosen this beer - a light lager similar to what Minott Wessinger's great grandpappy used to brew - as the beer to push.

I will state at the outset that this is not in my sweet-spot in terms of beer styles, but I do appreciate a nice pilsner.  I shall review it for style.

The first thing you notice when you pour it out is its color.  There can be no argument: this beer is gorgeous - clear with a beautiful golden hue that shines in the sun and a modest head. Beading and subdued lacing is nice as well.  In the presentation of the beer, then, it definitely does stand out from the macro lagers of the Bud, Coors and Miller kind and is a richer golden color than the German and Czech pilsners.

They proudly proclaim that it is double hops brewed using Bavarian Mittelfrüh and Czech Saaz both in the boil and as aroma hops.  This suggests two things: they are going after a traditional pilsner taste and they are trying to bring the hop not to the nose.  Both are very good ideas.  I had two samples, one from a can and another from a bottle.  Interestingly the can, which some say preserves beer better, was less aromatic than the bottle version.  The beer does have a nice and distinct pilsner taste, and is well balanced, the spicy Saaz hops complement the malt body well.  Sadly the hops aroma in the can I had was almost nonexistant, but the bottle did have a nice nose, not prominant by any means but there nontheless.  It is possible the bottle was served a bit warmer, but my enjoyment of the bottle was substantialy better than the can.

The beer is a clean a quaffable beer and a very respectable light lager and I have no problem proclaiming it a distinctly better than its American macro competition.  The color suggests high quality malts and, one hopes, the absence of rice adjuncts.  It has a nice mouthfeel and the hops do add a very nice, but subtle spice.  The weather here is turning cool, so not the ideal weather for the beer, this is a beer I would be very happy to have served to me on a hot summer day.  That said, given a choice my personal preference would be grab a Pilsner Urquell or a Trumer Pils first, but it would be a fine substitute and definitely a cut above the macro lagers.

In the end, this might not be a beer that I buy often, but it would certainly be a good beer to buy for someone who drinks only macro light lagers.  I think they will find that they enjoy it immensely but also will notice the difference in quality and flavor. 

The Strategy

This is what fascinates me for here in the Northwest we have a pretty standard SOP: brew a hoppy pale ale, generally an IPA, as the lead beer and build on the brewery brand by having a line-up that includes a porter or stout.  Ninkasi, Deschutes, Bridgeport, you name it, they all follow the same basic business plan.  Call it the craft brewery template. In another post I'll try and muse more about the reasons craft breweries focus on the brewery in branding not a beer, but my first take is that it is a signature of a craft brewery to brew many styles, not just one.

Great Northern's plan is to carve off a distinct identity based on a single beer. As you can see from my links there is even a distinct website for Black Star that mentions the brewery but not the myriad of other beers also brewed by Great Northen.  This single beer strategy is the old macro-brew strategy of Budweiser, Coors and Miller (and Henry Weinhard).  It also makes sense given the beverage focus of the McKenzie River Corporation - they are about building beverage brands not brewery brands.  

Another distinct part of the strategy is the type of beer they decided to go with - a light lager.  This again is a macro strategy and suggests that they are targeting this part of the market.  I suspect that they are not trying to compete for the Deschutes customer, but for the Coors customer that might be convinced to spend a little more for a beer that is a little better.  In a sense this is a market not contested by the craft brewing industry with the possible exception of Samuel Adams, so they might just have a real chance to carve off a small piece of the market (and a small piece of the macro market is still enormous). 

The upside is huge: many many people still drink macro lagers. However, the downside is huge as well: giant macro brewers have economies of scale on their side, so you can only compete by brewing something worth the extra money you charge.  Black Star is going for craft brew prices so the big question is whether drinkers will think it worth the extra price.  

I suspect that here in Beervana the going will be tough.  In their favor is the fact that almost no one lagers here and so there might be a chance for a quality lager to catch hold.  But when Portlanders drink lagers they usually go for PBR either for ironic or iconoclastic hipster reasons.  I also suspect that the glitzy marketing campaign may well backfire here and they'd do well to tone it down.  In addition, we have some hard to find but exceptional lagers like those Heater-Allen is putting out which makes their market as a craft lager not completely uncontested.  So whether Black Star can really gain a foothold will be an interesting question to see answered.  They have rolled out in California and there I think they may do quite well.  It is an appropriate beer for the climate and few craft lager choices exist.

As for me I am much more interested in the other beers Great Northern Brewing produces and lament the fact that they are not bringing us their IPA or ESB. [On a humorous note, the ESB is a bigger and hoppier beer than the IPA - go figure]  But then I am a Northwest hop head and a lost cause anyway.

I wish them luck.


Bill Night said...

Nice writeup, Patrick.

I, too, wondered what their game was with this, so a few months ago I emailed their marketing people asking how they hoped to make inroads against craft beer in Portland, or whether they wanted to take some Pabst market. Her reply:

"Black Star is not really a craft beer. Its position in between that of craft/import beers and premium domestics (Bud, Miller, Coors) in terms of flavor and even pricing."

It's curious to me that a small brewery would try to distance themselves from craft beer, but I suppose you're right that there's more money in a small splinter of the not-craft beer category.

Patrick Emerson said...


That is interesting (and I am glad to have some support for my theory). They are definitely straddling the line between pushing the little brewery in Montana (suggesting craft beer) and essentially trying to make a macro-beater light lager beer with slick marketing (suggesting not craft). They might want to (in the NW at least) be more explicit about wanting to give you a better macro lager.

I should have worked into the post the parallels with Full Sail's Session. Perhaps I'll follow up.

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