Day 506

Since the agenda for the second day of the MBAC conference sounded interesting, I skipped Friday’s classes in order to attend. (Okay, yes, it’s possible I would have skipped classes even if the agenda had sounded dull.)

First up was a Reuben Mattos of Kerry Ingredients to talk about optimising Whirlfloc, a commercial brand of Irish moss (used by brewers in the kettle to aid in clumping up protein, leading to clearer beer.) Since Nate Ferguson had covered the ins and outs of Irish moss fairly exhaustively in last semester’s FCF course, this was mainly review. I did learn that using tablets rather than granules will require 20% more (by weight) because the tablets are comprised of 20% filler required to hold the tablet together. Oh, and never pre-dilute Irish moss in hot water before adding it to the kettle–you’ll end up with a giant blob of indissoluble gel that you’ll have to fish out of the kettle by hand.

Next up was Blaine Clouston of Specific Mechanical Systems, who spoke to us about brewhouse design from the manufacturer’s perspective, and how the design can vary according to the brewer’s needs. For instance, how large a lauter tun would the average 15-barrel brewhouse need? Wet grain’s density is 25 lbs/ft3, and the optimal weight on the lauter tun false floor is 34.82 lbs/ft2. Since the average grist bill uses 55 lbs of grain per barrel, a 15-barrel system will use 825 lbs of grain per batch, so, the area of false floor needed would be 825 lbs/34.82 lbs/ft2 = 23.69 ft2. Using the famous area of a circle, A = πr2, the  lauter tun would be 66 inches (1.68 metres) in diameter. However, that’s the average brewery. What about a craft brewery that is planning to make a lot of higher gravity Belgian wheat ales? Not only would those use a lot more grain per batch–which would result in deeper grain beds in the lauter tun–but the use of wheat also has a tendency to gum up the lauter tun. In this case, the calculations would take into account the need for more grain and thinner grain beds, resulting in a lauter tun with a larger than average diameter.

Or there’s the whirlpool. A whirlpool generally works by removing some of the wort from the vat, then pumping it back into the vat at a tangential angle, forcing the wort in the vessel to start turning around and around like a whirlpool. After a few minutes of rotation, the trüb (excess protein and hops floating in the wort) will pile together in the middle of the vat floor. Apparently a lot of brewers just pump the wort back into the whirlpool at max speed, using the theory that you want to get the wort rotating as fast as possible. However, it turns out that to remove as much trüb as possible, you don’t need the wort to be whirlpooling like a miniature vortex. In fact the wort should re-enter the vessel at a fairly leisurely three metres per second. Huh.

Next was a presentation by Alex Speers and Andrew MacIntosh of Dalhousie University, who had designed an Excel spreadsheet to model and monitor fementations. The problem we have is that we often don’t know something is going wrong with our fermentation until it suddenly stops. Since we don’t know what happened, we don’t have a good idea of how to get fermentation going again. When this spreadsheet is regularly updated with various parameters such as the volume of CO2 being produced, yeast counts, alcohol being produced, specific gravity of the beer, etc., the spreadsheet will model your fermentation and graph the various parameters. Then if your fermentation starts to go haywire, one or more of the lines on the graph will diverge from the Golden Path of Perfect Fermentation. (This will always happen at 2 a.m.–even when you’re using this spreadsheet, you can still expect to get a call from the assistant brewmaster in the middle of the night.)

Lunch was interesting. Several brewers at my table started trading stories about spent grain–the used, wet grain that is left over after brewing. Most sell it or give it to local farmers for cattle or pig feed. However, given increasing municipal concern over excess biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) caused by waste products being washed into the sewer, what else could be diverted from the drain to the spent grain? Someone suggested spent yeast, but there was a lot of shaking of heads–apparently yeast can revivify in the animal’s stomach, start consuming sugars it finds there and then produce CO2. A lot of CO2. And then the cows explode. There are  other hazards as well. One brewer told the story of making a coffee porter, and adding the used coffee beans to the spent grain bin. He forgot to tell the farmer. The farmer’s wife fed the spent grain to the pigs, and went inside. An hour later, out of the corner of her eye, she saw two pig-shaped lightning bolts flash by the kitchen window, circle the house three times, then head for the back forty like they were greyhounds after a rabbit. By request of the farmer, no more coffee beans were added to the spent grain.

Back to presentations. Robert McCaig of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre gave a presentation on the history of the now-defunct Wheat Board, and the shiny equipment his company has for barley and malting research.

A representative of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) gave us the unwelcome news of more government regulation around the importation of food ingredients.

The final presentation, by Ted Wright of Fizz Marketing, was the real eyeopener for me. Ted was there to talk about the power of word of mouth marketing (WOMM). First, the problem: we are subjected to a huge amount of advertising. Counting all the ads on TV, radio (if we still listen to radio), websites and email, we are bombarded with thousands of messages every day. This has two effects: the first is that all those ads become a kind of white noise that our brains learn to ignore, like the hum from a refrigerator that we don’t even notice until it stops. The second effect is that 76% of consumers no longer believe advertisers are telling the truth about products. Instead:

  • 68% of consumers believe their friends tell the truth about products.
  • An astounding 92% of consumers believe that a recommendation from a friend is the best source when looking for ideas about what to buy, and 20% choose brands solely on the recommendation of a friend.

Because of this, word-of-mouth has become an incredibly powerful marketing tool–and best of all, it actually works best when you get out of the way and let it happen. According to Ted, word of mouth gets started by a certain segment of our population he called “influencers”. These are the people who love to try new things, share stories and are intrinsically motivated. (In other words, they like to get swag–not cheap badly-fitting logo t-shirts or a free beer coaster, but good quality, good-fitting, neat, shiny, attractive stuff.) They are attracted to stories that are interesting, relevant and authentic, and pass those on to their friends, who then pass them on to their friends, and so.

To take advantage of this, we have to make sure our marketing is starting these conversations, because if we can, then 40% of the resultant conversations will refer to our brand. So how do we do this?

  1. Identify a leadership group
  2. Find the influencers in the group, and have an interesting story to tell that is relevant to the influencers and their audience.
  3. Give them something to talk about. (Bring them into the brewery, make them CEO for the day, etc.) Just remember that influencers don’t sell, they share, and they don’t share stories they don’t feel are true.
  4. As the story spreads, create the tools to start the movement.
  5. Allow the people to join the movement of their own accord–they approach the movement, not vice versa.
  6. Measure the results.

Okay, this sounds pretty far-fetched, and not anything like the big breweries do with their multi-million dollar ad campaigns. So Ted gave us the case study of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR),  a sub-premium (marketing words for “cheap yellow”) beer that was a popular blue collar quaff 50 or 60 years ago. When Pabst approached Fizz Marketing in 2000, PBR was 44th out of 48 beers in terms of profitability,  and off the bottom of the charts in terms of market share. Fizz realized that this had been the working man’s beer 50 years ago, but their kids had rejected it because that’s what kids do. (There’s a whole theory here about each generation refusing to validate their parents’ likes, but instead returning to what their grandparents liked, which is seen as “authentic”.)

Fizz wanted to try word-of-mouth marketing exclusively, with no other advertising at all–no magazine ads, no TV ads. They would celebrate the people who liked the product, and push “authenticity” as the hallmark of both the stories and the beer. They started small–everytime they heard of a lifelong PBR drinker dying in the Seattle area, they sent a memorial letter on PBR letterhead to the person’s favourite bar. They didn’t ask the bar to post it, but that’s what happened. People in the bar (most of them in their 20s) read the letter. It made for a nice story, and autheticated PBR as the beer that an older generation had enjoyed.

Stories started to be told, and people started to approach them. A KISS tribute band composed of “small people” that toured the Midwest asked if PBR would sponsor their tours. Fizz said no, but told the band everytime they played a certain bar in Topeka, they would get a free 6-pack of PBR. Of course, the band gave a big thanks to PBR at the end of every concert–more conversations. Someone making a movie approached them and said the screen writer thought the character–an old Vietnam vet–would look more authentic if he was a PBR drinker. Was that okay? Fizz said, “Sure”, which is how they got Clint Eastwood drinking PBR in Gran Torino without paying a dime. The PBR website featured user-submitted photos.  People were getting PBR tattoos.

Without going into a lot more detail about all the strange things that happened, the results were stunning. By the end of 2006, PBR had risen to #19 in market share in the U.S., and was the #1 sub-premium beer. All of this without a major print or television campaign.

Naturally this “hands off” approach was incomprehensible to a number of older people in the audience. There were even several questions about the lack of beer coasters, which apparently are integral to most beer companies’ marketing plans. (I have to say, I couldn’t tell you what coaster was under my beer five minutes after I left the bar.)

In any case, even if you don’t believe in the power of WOMM, it was valuable food for thought for the small craft brewer with a limited marketing budget.

And then, although the roads had been clear and dry for the entire week, the snow started falling just before the end of the conference–between rush hour and the snow, the 25-minute drive took over two hours. Strangely, exactly the same thing had happened at last year’s conference.

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