You Gotta Get a Gimmick

My title comes from a song written for the musical Gypsy, in which a trio of experienced burlesque dancers are advising a young woman trying to break into the business after flaming out as a child star in vaudeville.  The point of the song is that it’s not enough just to be attractive (since all the girls are attractive)–in order to make a name for herself, a dancer has to do something a little different from all the other dancers.  (In the show, one dancer affects a particularly classy air, one carries a trumpet, and one adorns her costume with electric lights.)

What I’m thinking is that beer is another product that can be tough to differentiate, especially with the proliferation of craft brews on the market today.  Beer is, after all, a pretty limited product.  If you go with the strict German beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot, which dates from 1487), then the only ingredients should be barley, hops and water.  (No mention of yeast, which is necessary for fermentation and could be considered a fourth ingredient.)  The restriction to barley as a grain was to keep wheat and rye affordable for baking bread, while the hops were to prevent the use of other, less savory, preservatives.

Other countries (notably Belgium) didn’t stick to such strict limitations, and contemporary brewers use a variety of grains and feel free to experiment with fruit extracts and spices, among other exotic ingredients.  Even so, experts (such as Greg Engert, who was recently featured on the NPR foodie  program Splendid Table) can identify a limited number of flavor groups for beer, which means that, just like our aspiring dancer, if you are an aspiring craft brewer then you need a gimmick in order to garner some attention and make yourself stick out from the dozens of other beers in the cooler at the neighborhood liquor store.

I remember sneering a couple of years ago when one of the mass market lagers started promoting a specially-shaped bottle that would pour faster and smoother, thinking “Well, they can’t sell based on what’s in the bottle, so I guess they’re selling based on the shape of the bottle.”  Similarly, Bud Light is currently hawking “aluminum bottles” as a way to use packaging rather than the actual product to maintain their market share.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that I could reliably pick out one of my favorite beers (say Sierra Nevada Celebration) in a blind tasting, so maybe I’m just going with the label and would be just as happy with one of a dozen other highly hopped beers.

So, in the category of gimmicks, this post brings you some beers from the Flying Dog brewery which boasts not one but two interesting aspects to their packaging and marketing efforts.  The first is their penchant for colorful (and sometimes off-color), frequently dog-themed names for their beers: “Raging Bitch,” “In-Heat Wheat,” and the flagship “Doggie Style” pale ale (pictured at right) IMG_0244best fit this template.  The second gimmick is to link their reputation to famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a neighbor when the brewery first got started in Colorado (they are now headquartered in Frederick, MD). This effort extends to their label artwork, created by Ralph Steadman who provided illustrations for many of Thompson’s works, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and whose style is easily identifiable and easy to connect with Thompson.

There were four beers in this mix pack.  IMG_0239My least favorable impression was the beer named “Pearl Necklace,” so-called because oysters from the Rappahannock River are one of the ingredients.  I don’t know if just the idea was off-putting (I’m not a big oyster fan) or if there was actually something that the oysters contributed to the flavor, but this one ranks near the bottom in terms of all the stouts I can remember trying.  The Snake Dog IPA was also not particularly distinctive and probably not a beer I would seek out on its own.  I suppose it’s possible that I’ve tried enough IPA’s that they no longer make much of an impression–the next mix pack will test that assumption since it contains four different styles of IPA from the same brewery. IMG_0249 (For the foodies out there, the main dish on this plate is a baked sweet potato, topped with a warm black bean and tomato salsa. Hopefully the days when we want to warm the kitchen by running the oven for well over an hour will be gone soon.)

Speaking of weather, maybe it’s the change in seasons that’s affecting my palate, because the two lighter beers in this mix pack were the definite winners.  One was the aforementioned pale ale, which had a nice clean finish and a good balance of malt and hops.  (It doesn’t look lighter in the pictures, but my impression is definitely that the pale ale wasn’t trying to impress me, so maybe lighter in some abstract sense rather than in terms of actual color or body of the beer.)  My favorite from this group, however, was the UnderDog Atlantic Lager.  IMG_0247It had a nice, citrusy tang, and was pleasantly fizzy.  I can see it being even more enjoyable as the weather gets warmer–definitely worth seeking out in the future.

Another brewery with a gimmicky approach to its labeling that I’ve been coming across lately is Two Roads from Connecticut.  I’ve previously mentioned their “Route of all Evil” which fits the road-related theme of many of their beer names.  At a recent dinner out with friends (you can see the menu for vegetarian restaurant The Grange in the photo)IMG_0248 , I tried their imperial stout which goes by the name “Igor’s Dream” in honor of local helicopter icon Igor Sikorsky.  This was an intensely colored stout, poured so that the head wasn’t excessive, and the flavor was not overpowered by either a garlicky pureed soup or the Korean barbecue sauce on my tempeh tacos.  It is listed as seasonal, so it may not be available much longer this spring. The other Two Roads beer was their Workers Comp saison. a year-round offering that some friends brought to share at Easter dinner.  This is the second saison I’ve been exposed to in the last month, and maybe the combination of knowing what to expect and  the relaxing environment of sitting with a pleasantly full stomach on a deck overlooking Narragansett Bay on a sunny and not-too-chilly afternoon allowed me to appreciate the sour flavor profile of this beer more than I might have otherwise.

If Dogfish Head Brewery has a gimmick, it’s in their willingness to experiment.  I learned about this first-hand during a brewery tour when we spent a semester near their headquarters in Delaware while Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave was on sabbatical, and there was also an lengthy piece in the New Yorker about them a few years back. Their 60 Minute IPA was a breakthrough of sorts in the heavily hopped IPA world, but having tried it at a couple of restaurants in the last couple of weeks, it’s no longer the standout that it was when it first hit the market.  It’s also possible that the draft version doesn’t come across the same way that it does from the bottle, especially since the drafts I tried were probably not as cold as it would be coming from my fridge.  My final beer for this report was another Easter dinner brew provided by friends, which was the Sierra Nevada porter.  As usual, I like just about everything from Sierra Nevada, and this porter had more body than some that I’ve tried, but with the warmer weather I may have to wait a while before continuing those comparisons.

Adding eight more new beers gets the tally up to 53, so more than halfway to a century.  Next up, as noted above, will be several IPAs (plus whatever I might come across in my travels away from home), and then maybe it will be time to start seriously seeking out some summery brews, along with the changeover from scotch to gin and tonic as the cocktail of choice.  Cheers!

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