First Taste: Alexander Keith’s Hop Series

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

Those folks at Keith’s just might be on to something.

In recent years consumers have shown more interest in beer appreciation, paying an extra buck or two to craft brewers that proudly crow about their small batch goodness.

Big breweries meanwhile, are spending their big brewery marketing budgets to try to maintain their sales, while the little guys eat away at the overall share of the market.  In fact, the LCBO reported a 29.4% increase in Ontario craft beer sales in the last annual reporting period – nearly as impressive as the 35.2% growth the preceding year.  Meanwhile overall beer and cider sales in Ontario dropped 2% in the same period (from $932.2 million to $914 million).

Picture a hundred Berserker Davids taking on a handful of Goliaths and you’re witness to the current climate.  They’re a feisty lot, those micro guys and gals, and their indignation towards the corporate giants is palpable.

Keith’s, as a brand, is subject to much of the craft beer purists’ scorn, especially here in hop-obsessed Ontario, with frequent shrieks that the flagship India Pale Ale is not a true IPA (too little alcohol, not enough hops).  Interestingly, in the U.S., which also loves it some hoppy pale ales, Keith’s markets a Nova Scotia Style Pale Ale in place of its IPA.

Now the Halifax-born brewery is putting Humulus Lupulus front-and-centre with the recent launch of Keith’s Hop Series.  Starting with a Cascade Hop Ale, which is now on tap, the Hallertauer Hop Ale joins it this week in canned format (473 ml singles, and a 12-pack mixer featuring both styles) across the nation.

Simply put, this is Beer 101, aimed at the regular suds drinker with an interest in furthering their experience.  Both Cascade and Hallertauer are easy drinking, moderate alcohol (5.4% and 5.5%, respectively) and mashed with 100% malt… so none of the adjunct that craft beer aficionados revile.  Each batch is also dry-hopped (adding hops during the maturation stage) to increase flavour and aroma.

And this whole highfalutin’ process is part of the marketing. “The mission is about championing beer and educating beer drinkers around the country,” says Keith’s Brand Manager, Mike Bascom. “The more we talk to beer drinkers, the more we realized people didn’t know much about it.”

But therein lies some risk. If you start telling people that Hop Series is brewed with 100% malt, do they begin to question what the hell is in the other stuff?  Bascom figures that won’t be the case. “No, I don’t think so.  It’s an opportunity to expose the drinkers to new styles,” he maintains, while pointing out the IPA is still the number one speciality beer in Canada “by a long shot.” Those who like it, like it a lot.

There’s a reason Keith’s (which has been a subsidiary of Labatt since 1971… which is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev… which is headquartered in Belgium) still packages its fermented wort in Halifax, under the name of its original Scottish founder.  People are doggedly loyal to the East Coast branding.  Understanding that, Keith’s is brewing all of Hop Series in Nova Scotia, for distribution across Canada.

The price point on the new Hop Series is at a “slight premium” to Keith’s other brands. Depending on the success of the first two, others could follow.  Bascom says they’re currently playing around with hops from as far off as Australia, and as close as Canada, but wouldn’t tip his hand when pressed for a hint on Hop #3.

Give Keith’s credit. They may not always be brewing the most interesting beers, but unlike most of their mass-brewed brethren they’re taking a risk here by promoting education instead of imagery. If the head-to-head experiment fails it will be forgotten faster than Labatt Copper (remember X vs. Y, circa 1995? … probably not).  If it works however, it could be a bold step into a whole new product segment; an actual learning experience that turns ignorant palettes into budding scholars.

It’s not the micro-brewers that will suffer if Hop Series does what it sets out to do, but rather the bloated giants who have relied for years on drinkers thinking about Clydesdales and pond hockey rather than what’s in their pint glass.

Frankly, these two new brews are worth trying. Would I buy them, myself? Well… let’s just say if someone put one in front of me, I wouldn’t push it away.


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