On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss if beer cans have gone overboard with their art, with some even obscuring what the actual beer inside the can might be. Then, the three taste Juicy Little Thing, the latest release in Sierra Nevada’s “Little Thing” line. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is The VinePair Podcast: Friday edition. We’re going to get right into it today because I think we have a really fun topic. That is another one that was brought to our attention via a listener. This is from Tom, who emailed me and basically said he’s been a listener for a really long time, which we appreciate. Thank you to all of you who are loyal, longtime listeners. He said he’s gotten a lot of information from the pod, but was really curious about one specific thing, and that is that he is, at his core, a craft beer drinker, but he’s gotten very tired of the really crazy labels and names that are now all over beer. For example, Unicorn Farts, which was in his email, which I really appreciated. That’s very funny. His question basically was, do we think that this move, the continued extremism, I guess you would say, of beer labeling, names, et cetera, where basically there isn’t many details anymore on what actually the beer is or what it will taste like is going to ultimately hurt the category as people may be either turned away from those kinds of beers and towards the macro lagers they know, or away from those beers to other things like seltzers, et cetera? One of the anecdotes he used is that he was in his local craft beer store recently and he was looking at this huge cooler filled with these beers, and another guy walked over to the cooler, looked at them, and goes, “I’m not going to get any of this crap. I don’t even know what it is.” He walked over and got — I think it was PBR.
Z: Blue Moon.
J: Blue Moon.
A: Blue Moon. He was like, “At least I know what’s in this,” then grabbed it and left. I have to say that I hadn’t thought about this prior to Tom emailing in, which is why you all should email in your questions because sometimes, like this time, they are really good and are great topics for us to discuss that we might not have thought of ourselves even in our editorial meetings, et cetera. I thought to myself, “Good point, Tom.” I think that’s a very valid thing to be concerned about because the more I think about it as well, I do see that beer has gone from this product that was just trying to differentiate itself from macro beer by having a little bit more design than macro lager did, to really being a product that you made and then had your high school friend, who thought they were a graphic designer on the side, design the label for, and you made the most insane name possible for the beer, and you didn’t really seem to care what people knew about that beer. It’s sort of like if you’re in the know and you’re a drinker at this brewery, then you’re willing to trust us for all the beers we make and we don’t need to tell you — which I could see is not a problem if you’re a tap room attendee. But if you’re a patron, not of the tap room, but of the local store, and you don’t have that information, then I think Tom has a pretty valid point here. Who is buying these beers, and is it ultimately hurting craft beer? I think you could say, at some, yes. We have the same problem now that lots of wines have where people don’t understand the grape names, the regions, et cetera so they buy something that’s familiar. What do you guys think?
J: I think that last thing that you just said is a really big part of it. There’s so many beers out there now. There’s so many craft breweries, and they have so many beers from each of them. The market for, especially, the more popular styles is so super saturated that I feel like, at this point, you need something like a zany name or a really outrageous label to set yourself apart. I think that for a lot of people — probably ones who are less familiar with different styles and maybe just know they like an IPA — that when they’re going to the grocery store, or wherever they get their craft beer, they are picking these things by the label.
A: We’ve never had that many sirens ever.
Z: Exciting times in Midtown, or whatever.
Z: I want to ask you guys a question, first of all, to Tom’s email. Did either of you look up what this beer is, the Unicorn Farts?
J: Unicorn Farts?
Z: I did not.
J: I didn’t either.
Z: What kind of beer do you think it is? Each of you guess.
A: I think it’s like a milkshake triple IPA.
J: I think it’s a hazy IPA.
Z: Both wrong.
J: Something fruity.
Z: I will read you the description because I think it’s hilarious.
Z: The Sour Me Unicorn Farts is a glittered sour ale — glittered sour ale is, apparently, a category now — brewed with cherries, tangerines, and limes. Fruity cereal is added into the mash, and it’s finished off with a sprinkle of natural, mineral-based edible glitter. I guess if you asked me-
Z: Yes. No, this is straight from the DuClaw Brewery website, I promise you. I have no idea if it’s any good. I’m guessing that the combination of edible glitter and fruity cereal means — I’m not really the target audience for this beer, but maybe I am. DuClaw, if you want us to try it on air, send us some cans. We will try it. I promise you.
A: If it even still exists anymore.
Z: Yes, that’s true.
J: Glittered sour ale.
Z: But the point here is — first of all, fantastic point here by Tom — even though some of this information is on the can, who knows what the f*ck any of this tastes like. That is part of the problem with this and the zany artwork and naming conventions. They definitely help feed into this confusion of what is in the beer. I also think that we’re just — it’s the stage of craft beer we’re in where — if the early stages as you were talking about, Adam, were about differentiation from macro lager and about saying, “Hey look, there’s this whole world of beer styles that goes beyond the lager or beyond the light lager. We can make these beers. We can enjoy these beers, and we probably, as the brewery, don’t have to do a lot more on the marketing side than just be different.” Then you had another wave that was like, “OK, well, we’re going to maybe amp up and we’re going to really focus on IPAs. We’re going to amp up the amount of hops, maybe amp up the amount of alcohol. It’s going to be this even more intense thing.” That’s where you start to see some of this can art and naming gimmickry creep in. I think, unfortunately, as we’ve noted before and has been noted on the site before, this is where I think you start to see a lot of the more appropriative and/or gross sexist marketing-
J: Oh, yes.
A: Oh, yes, totally.
Z: -in that realm in particular. Now, I think on the one hand, it’s more whimsical, and less harmful, in the design. But as we’ve entered this world of the kinds of beer styles that you both described in trying to guess what Unicorn Farts was, we have entered the space where beer is so — there’s so much going on. There’s so much literally going into the beers, perhaps edible glitter and cereal and stuff like that, that it’s a little bit hard — I don’t even know what a conventional label for this beer would look like. What could you possibly call a beer like this that wasn’t something goofy and gimmicky? I don’t know that you — It’s almost, to me, like the art now is being determined by the style of beer being made. It’s no longer a — let’s put a crazy label on our brown ale. It’s like, “We made a beer with 5 million different ingredients that are super strange. We have to give it an unconventional label because otherwise, people are going to have the wrong idea about it going in if the beer can looks too conventional.”
A: I think that this goes back to — there’s a thing about being creative, and there’s a desire for people to want the new new and the coolest sh*t. But at the end of the day, if you look at actual market trends, the only thing that people are actually chasing right now is either high ABV and juicy and sweet, or they’re chasing nostalgia — the old-school craft beers that they really used to like. I think Dave Infante had a good point about that in Hop Take today on the site where he looked at New Belgium and where things are growing. They’re trying to fix Fat Tire, but they’re also then releasing all these new Voodoo Ranger lines that all are-
J: Fruit Force.
A: -very fruit forward, taste like fruit punch, and are high ABV. At the end of the day, a lot of these weird, geeky beers are just like — they don’t appeal to the average drinker, and they’re too much. I think that’s where the cult of craft beer has gotten out of control.
J: Lost its way.
A: Yes. It’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. They like us.” There was a time 10 years ago, I would say, when craft beer was at its height, where the biggest brewers names were known amongst craft beer aficionados. Then those brewers had cult followings, and anything they brewed was just bought up in droves because everyone was like, “This person is so creative, yadda yadda yadda.” Now what happened? The thing we’ve talked about in a lot of these conversations about what happens when you make people celebrities that shouldn’t be — a lot of them turned out to be bad actors. There was a lot of sexual harassment and other foul play that happened in this industry. Alcohol plus people who can’t control things is not a great mix. I think there was a turn against the brewer as a celebrity in a lot of places. I think, also, the brewer as a celebrity 10 years and prior was all built on the brewer being the ultimate bro. The beer bro was a big thing in craft beer. I will never forget a very famous brewer who owns a very, very famous beer brand that happens to brew on the East Coast that may or may not make a lot of IPAs, said to myself and my co-founder Josh, at one point, that one of his IPAs was a session IPA if you are not a “what you might call the name of a cat.” Sorry.
J: What are you saying?
Z: That was a lot of caveats there, or whatever.
Z: I think we get what you’re saying.
A: He made one of these bigger double IPAs, and that was the lowest. When we asked him if he would ever make session IPAs, he said, “No, that’s my session IPA if you’re not a — whatever you want to say.” I remember Josh and I leaving that meeting being like, “Wow, that guy was such a bro.” That was the ethos of craft beer in general. I think that this is just taking it to a thousand while the majority of people have stopped caring about the bro culture. The bro culture has become very icky in a lot of worlds. The bro culture actually hasn’t become icky. Sorry, that’s not true. The bro culture still exists. It just moved on to seltzer. Basically, all of the stuff happening in bro culture, at this point in time, is basically being defined by Barstool Sports, and that’s all in the world of seltzer: High Noon, White Claw, et cetera. The bros left craft beer, and the people left in craft beer are aficionados who really like beer, and they don’t like this. It’s just a turnoff. I think that’s why you’re continuing to see the market share shrink because people are like, “I don’t know if I need a beer named Unicorn Farts.”
J: We have another great piece on the site from Dave Infante about “Craft Beer Has Grown Up, Someone Tell the Asshats.” I think that’s what you’re talking about here. What I wanted to say is that I find this trend to be a shame because what happens is that you miss good beer and the people who are making good stuff. I think that if you don’t like this trend, then you miss out on some of the better beers. Then also, if you’re a beer maker and you don’t want to participate in this trend, then you’re accessing a different, or smaller, audience as a result as well.
Z: I wonder, too, if there’s an issue here where — are you potentially stuck as a brewer, or as a brewery, trying to figure out, “OK, do we want to play this fancy can art game because it’s a thing that catches eyeballs, whether that’s in stores or on Instagram or wherever, or are we worried about alienating another audience that looks at stuff like this, like our listener Tom, that says, like, “I don’t want this. I don’t need this can I’m holding to make an artistic statement?” I think that is a difficult path to walk if you’re a brewery. I think it’s hard to know, and I think it’s why you see some breweries do both. With some breweries, some of their core beers are going to be more conventionally packaged and labeled and named, and then they might do a one-off that’s more gimmicky, either in terms of style or just naming and branding and stuff like that. It allows them to perhaps triangulate somehow there. I think the fascinating thing to me here is that so much of this, over the last few years, has really been driven — and we’ve talked about this on the pod before, but it bears mentioning again — by the shift of a lot of craft beer out of tap, out of draft, and into cans. That’s been driven by a lot of factors. It’s been driven by Covid and some of the realities of where beer is being sold these days. Some of it is being driven by this, depending on your opinion on it, vicious or virtuous cycle of the kinds of beers that get attention being the ones that are in 16-ounce cans with eye-catching design and names. That stuff doesn’t convey well in a pint glass. It doesn’t convey well even on a tap handle. It’s funny. I was thinking about this when we got this email, that there was a period when the real zany creativity in beer was being focused on tap handles. I remember our bars getting a lot of really interesting, ornate, sometimes difficult-to-use tap handles because at that point, craft brewers and brewers were thinking, “How do we catch consumers’ eyes?” For so many people, the craft beer bar was the outlet, and that meant draft. That meant you needed a tap handle that someone was going to look at and be like, “Oh, what is that beer? It’s got something really interesting going on. It’s not just your standard vertical handle that you see everywhere.” I think a lot of that has shifted, like I said, to cans and to packaging more generally. It makes sense. That’s where the growth had been, or where the sales had been for the last few years. It creates a feedback loop where, again, we’re talking about the ways people are sharing their beer, whether it’s on tap or whether it’s on social media more broadly. It’s a lot easier to share a picture of a can than it is, like I said, to share a picture of a tap handle or just a beer in a glass. Some of this, I think — it’s going to be hard to put this back in the bottle such as it were. There’s a lot of forces behind this. People are obviously seeing success doing this even if other people are being turned off by it. I think we are already starting to see this, but I wonder if we’re going to see more of this kind of approach creep into other things we’ve talked about like seltzer. Why are we not seeing more — maybe we are and I’m just not as aware of it — really artistic seltzer cans?
J: I don’t know. I’m trying to think of some as you say this.
Z: Because you think about, like, White Claw and Truly and stuff, and they’re very streamlined. They don’t have a lot going on.
J: Yes, yes.
A: No, I think the whole thing is that the design influence of seltzer is “of the moment,” of very clean — again, a lot of seltzer cans go back to this premium, mediocre-looking design. It’s very clean, simplistic. It’s the same fonts that are easy to read. Look, let’s be clear, most of the craft beer cans look like the people just got done from listening to a Widespread Panic or Phish concert, and then they were still tripping on acid and decided to draw some image on the can. That’s part of what craft beer’s always been, but that’s very different than, I think, the audience that they’re trying to reach. It’s interesting because I’ve now seen a few prominent craft beer brands in New York who are redesigned to this much cleaner look. For example, the flagship of Other Half, Green City, is now very clean. It’s a very cleanly designed can that looks more like seltzer, where it’s a skyline that’s green and it says “Green City IPA Other Half.” Because I think there is something about that that you understand, consumers just respond to it better.
J: I think of Maine Beer Co.
A: Yes, Maine Beer Co. is very clean. Again, I think that’s why people also respond well to it. It feels higher-end. I think there is something about that, too. This crazy design aesthetic of craft beer doesn’t always go hand in hand with being premium. Not to completely change our subject here, or to pick on another area of drinks, but I do think that this scattershot, very avant-garde design in craft beer that now we’ve seen looks less premium than it used to to a consumer is the same problem that we see natural wine facing. In the early days, there was this movement amongst natural wine producers, and just the wine community in general, to be like, “We want something just as cool as what’s happening in craft beer. We want that community.” There were people in wine. They pushed for that, and they discovered natural wine. Natural wine borrowed a lot of its design ideas from craft beer. The labels were really crazy, super artistic, doodles, all that kind of stuff. In the beginning, it felt like you had an accessible wine, but now those wines are getting higher and higher and higher in price. Consumers, I think, are saying, “Why?” Again, the label doesn’t match what I think of as to be premium. That’s always been something in society that people don’t fully understand. We do associate certain design aesthetics with premium, certain design aesthetics with mid-level, and certain design aesthetics with cheap. Clean, very sparse design has always been associated with high-end. If you look at the top fashion labels, black and white-
J: The minimalism.
A: Minimalism has always been considered high-end. This is not minimalist at all. I think the beer prices are getting more expensive and it’s not minimalist, and so people are like, “Why?”
Z: And I think there’s also — to come back to Tom’s point on this — I think it also applies to natural wine in this example. There also becomes this question of whether, intentionally or not, the design is obfuscating what the beverage is. Are you trying to sell people the packaging, and you’re very clearly not communicating to them what is inside it? Plus, people have bad experiences with beer or wine that they just don’t like. They’re going to turn away from that. They’re going to turn back to a more conventional, more recognizable, and more comprehensible design that may also convey higher quality, but also conveys the information that people generally want from a label. In the end, as we discussed, you want to pick up the can or bottle, or whatever, and have a decent idea what is going to be inside the beverage that you are paying for. If you don’t know that from looking at the label, some people might still be willing to take a chance because they like the design. I think that there are a lot of people who have been burned by that, whether just because of poor luck or — it doesn’t really matter. If you’ve picked up a bottle of natural wine or a can of beer, and because you’re like, “Oh, this is a cool design. I love this.” And then you’re drinking it, and you’re like, “I don’t know.” As that thing — especially as you were saying, Adam — has become more and more expensive, it becomes harder and harder to get excited about doing that in the future.
J: Yes. I won’t do that again. Right?
J: Then it’s the Blue Moon anecdote. At least you know what you’re getting.
A: Right, at least you know what you’re getting. Well, speaking of at least you know what you’re getting, we’re going to try something on the pod today because we have not tried something in a while. Sierra Nevada reached out to us and asked us if we would try their Juicy Little Thing IPA, their new hazy IPA.
J: It’s only available until April, I believe.
A: Which is weird because Hazy Little Thing is a hazy IPA. This is just a little bit boozy and juicy.
J: It’s a limited release, right?
A: Yes. We’ll see. Look, I’ve been impressed by Hazy Little Thing. Also, speaking of it, if you make things and want us to try them, send them. You know who to reach out to. Reach out to Zach, he’ll coordinate it all.
Z: Made with edible glitter or not, we don’t care.
A: Yes. I would try the Unicorn Farts.
J: To be fair, I think the Unicorn Farts is just, like — it doesn’t seem to be all of what DuClaw does.
Z: No, no, no. It’s just one of the beers.
J: Just wondering. Let’s see.
A: It smells like-
Z: This is noticeably — go ahead, Adam.
A: -very hoppy. It smells very hoppy.
Z: Yes, but I would say it has more of the — on the nose, it has more overt orange juice than-
A: Oh, I agree with you.
Z: -Hazy Little Thing does.
J: Yes, a little fruitier and juicier.
Z: Yes, decidedly. Decidedly juicier than Hazy Little Thing.
J: Well, it is Juicy Little Thing.
A: Ooh, juicy.
Z: Well, that’s what I’m saying, yes. No, it’s appropriately named. It lives up to our discussion.
A: I will tell you. Again, this is another one that — we know why the hazy craze started, right? It’s because people — and Dave has written about this before. In order to expand the craft beer category, they realized that they needed to create beers that were not this aggressively bitter, and even really good pilsners are aggressively bitter. They needed to move away from this bitter flavor profile and towards this fruity, juicy flavor profile. Hazy’s did that, and this just, I think, takes a little bit of a step further. This is easy-drinking OJ and-
J: Yes, but without being like fruit punch.
A: Right, but without being fruit punch, although their competitor has that if you need it. Again, this goes back to — it’s a larger conversation we should have at another time, but I don’t think you can fight the American palate. People keep trying to make the American palate be what they want it to be, and it’s just not going to happen. The American palate is a palate that likes rich, sweet, and full. It is the palate. It’s so funny because, when I talk to drinks producers, they always understand it the other way. For example, I was talking to some producers of tequila and they were saying, like, while they see tequila growing in Europe, they never think it will grow to the level it’s grown here because of the flavor for possibility. The kind of cocktails you like are the sweeter Margaritas, et cetera. But then they don’t understand why gin won’t grow here. I said, “Well, because gin is a much more herbal, bitter botanical type liquid that we don’t like in the U.S. as much.” That’s why we like vodka instead, right? It’s this base layer. You can make whatever you want on top.
Z: Or we like bourbon instead.
A: Exactly. We like bourbon instead of Scotch whisky in a lot of cases. The flavors are different. The kinds of foods you eat are different. We eat cheeseburgers a lot in this country. It just is what it is. We sweeten our tomato sauces. We just do. I think the companies that are figuring that out continue to win. Again, that doesn’t mean that if you are a craft producer or high-end winemaker that you can’t succeed here. It just means you’re going to speak to a smaller population, and there’s a different way to talk to them. I think the beauty of what we do here is we talk to both of those sets of groups. We have the aficionados who we talk to and who we understand, and who understand our reviews and the ways that we write about those wines and spirits. Then we have the mass market who just really likes beer, but likes a beer like this, or likes a seltzer that tastes like strawberries, and it is what it is. I think for that group, this beer is very effective.
Z: Yes. I would be curious to see if it becomes a more permanent part of the Little Thing line, or if it remains just a limited-time offering. I’m sure it’s a trial run. You have to imagine.
A: But quite juicy. Anyways, have a great weekend everybody, and we will see you back here on Monday as always. Thanks for listening, and if you have any thoughts, hit us up at [email protected], or any other way. If you want to send a pigeon, we’re on 28th and 5th Avenue. Just have it land on the roof where we are.
A: Yes, whatever you do, get in touch with us, and please leave a review wherever you listen to the podcast. All right. See you guys Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.
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Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.