Theme beers aim for the lucrative zombie demographic

by Mark Tichenor


One of the things I miss about being a kid is that loud, colorful ecosystem of toys, food, and TV cartoons in which I dwelt. The TV shows I watched, spawned the toys I wanted, which in turn begat the breakfast cereals I was always pestering my long-suffering parents to buy.

For the most part, that cycle is something we outgrow, but there is some deep-rooted part of the psyche which longs to return to that comfortable old habit. There must be, because there is no other rational way to explain the proliferation of theme beers.

Theme beers, for the uninitiated, are middle-of-the-road craft beers run through the worlds most cynical marketing departments, and tied in with popular television shows or bands. It’s Smurfberry Crunch in a bottle, and the fact that consumer demand exists for them is enough to shatter all faith in the human species.

Let’s start with Warnog Ale, from the Canadian-based Federation of beer. This marketing company cum brewery with an “official partnership with the Star Trek franchise” contracts its ale from a brewery in Indiana, slaps a Klingon logo on the can, and sells it to people who take science fiction way too seriously. In case you’re down on the Klingon Empire,

Warnog also offers Vulcan Ale. Either way, it’s probably best not to wear a red shirt when consuming them.

If that isn’t enough of a cynical pop-culture ploy, you might want to try Philidelphia-based Dock Street brewing’s “Walker,” A beer “inspired” by hit AMC series “The Walking Dead,” and-oh you vegetarians are gonna love this-brewed with real brains.

Billed in their press release as an “American Pale Stout” (do styles still exist or are beer terms now put together by pulling tiles out of a Scrabble bag), Walker contains cranberries for tartness and coloring, and uses smoked goat brains added before sparging to “provide this beer with subtle smoke notes.”

At least Dock Street Walker teaches us that, despite observational evidence to the contrary, goats have brains. Beyond that, this mishmosh of gimmicks promises little of relevance to the drinker, and only the most tenuous connection to the television show after which it is named. Definitely a beer that appeals to zombie consumers.

These are but two of the proliferation of theme beers designed to catch consumers’ escapist preferences in priority over their taste buds. There is also a Harry Potter beer a Hanson beer (mmm-hops), and a Game of Thrones beer. I expect ‘50 Shades of Ale’ is just around the corner.

Folks, they are laughing at us. This type of beer marketing need not promise quality beer, or interesting flavor. Craft beer skyrocketed through a dizzying growth cycle with no end in sight, and apparently that is because we will buy anything and consider it amazing, even if it only comes in a can with our favorite spaceship painted onto the side.

Craft brewing was founded by people who tasted their beer and found it wanting. It was built by people trying to make something better. It has evolved into a series of beers whose flavor profiles are irrelevant. It is the Cola Wars all over again, on a smaller scale. Ultimately, how is this any different from how the much-maligned ‘big multinational breweries’ vie for your attention?

Ultimately, we all need to ask ourselves why we buy craft beer. Is it for the contents or is it for the can?

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

I would write about Blue Point’s sale to A-B, but Dan of The Full Pint said it all.


Writing the damn book: When in doubt, do the appendix

I pounded out a few pages today. Writing from conversations with Geoff Dale of Three Heads Brewing is always easy. He’s extremely enthusiastic and talkative (and he’s usually buying too). Then I compile the Rochester Beer Guide appendix, which is little more than the names, addresses, and twitter names of the city’s breweries, beer stores, and pubs. It’s mundane, but a necessary part of this process. Plus it took up a bunch of words.


Tonight, I’m interviewing John Roman, owner of The Old Toad, arguably the first bar in the USA to serve real ale on cask, and definitely the first pub in Rochester to treat indie beer with the respect it deserved. I’m expecting plenty of good stories. 

Getting closer, one keyboard tap at a time. 


Writing a book is hard.

I am way fucking behind. My plan was to not obsess about word count, but I’m about 6,000 words into a 37,000 word manuscript due March 15. I’ve interviewed a bunch of people, and I still need to talk to many more. 

Procrastination is a huge problem for me. Every time I think about getting near the computer, my Attention Deficit/High Definition kicks in and I want to do ANYTHING else (well, really only two or three things, which shall go mercifully unnamed) instead of plopping my ass down and hitting those keys. Hell, I guess I’d even rather do this!


Anyway, I’m trying, and it consumes my thoughts. This is my personal Appalachian trail, and I fear I’m still only through Georgia. 

In Buffalo, Beer isn’t just a man’s game.

Imageby Mark Tichenor

When you think about it, it sounds silly to assign gender roles to beverages, but people do it every day. It drummed into our heads on television commercials and magazine ads: wine is for women, beer is for men.

Except it’s not. Not anymore. While the craft brewing industry is still vastly male, some of the biggest players, like New Belgium’s Kim Jordan, are women. An increasing number of women are apprenticing in breweries and shipping themselves off to brewing school. The same is true on the other side of the bar. While traditional flavor roles still predominate, the sheer variety of tastes, aromas and styles of craft beer has connected more women with beers they love.

In Buffalo, a group of women have made beer appreciation their mission. They call themselves the Buffalo Beer Goddesses, meet monthly for a big social, and after only a year, they are up to 280 informal members. Oh, and don’t tell them they should stick with the light, fruity stuff.

“I’ve been drinking a lot of porters, stouts and barleywines,” says Sara Rosenberry, secretary of the organization.” Rosenberry’s preference for the darker stuff comes from a deep interest in beer, brewing, and the pleasant journey through various styles to find what’s perfect for the moment. She delights in connecting with others and helping them on their own beer journeys, removing social barriers to entry and esucating women about just how vast the world of craft beer is. “If you think you don’t like beer,” she says, “you may just not know where to start.

“We really want to focus on educating people, getting the word out, getting more people involved in enjoying beer and the beer industry. We’re hoping to set up fundraising events too,” Rosenberry explains. “I’ve made so many friends through this group that I never would have met.”

Aside from their mission to bring great women together with great beer, the Goddesses keep things light and informal. There isn’t a membership per se. Socials are open to all (even to guys) and really amount to a bunch of people appreciating craft beer as a delicious social lubricant.

The Goddesses don’t call any one bar their home, and rotate their monthly social to various craft beer-oriented locations in the Buffalo area. According to Rosenberry, the group  has found warm welcomes and heartfelt support from the local pub scene. The next social is at the Pizza Plant on January 16th.

The group also pours craft beer, donated by area breweries, at events, and takes group trips to breweries throughout Western New York

Rosenberry says the best way to get involved is to look the Buffalo Beer Goddesses up on Facebook and join their group. While not seeking to run an umbrella organization for different chapters, she says they would welcome and support women who would like to start a Rochester chapter. “If someone in Rochester wanted to start it up, we’d be happy to lend the idea and name to a sister group.”

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

How to gain instant fame for your small brewery through manipulation of the legal system and the public

1. Brew a coffee/mocha/espresso stout. Name it (or at least encourage consumers to refer to it as) something extremely close to a trademark held by a large corporation

2. Receive a (surprisingly polite) cease & desist letter from the legal representatives of that corporation

3. Write a snarky letter to said legal representatives in which you act like a wounded aggrieved party being put upon by “The Man.” Circulate this letter as far and widely as possible, so everybody knows how much of an improbable David you are, taking on big, bad Goliath

4. Change the name to something that reflects your pitched battle against corporate injustice. Sit back and smile as the craft beer sheep obediently line up to shear themselves at your tap handle.

Rediscovering a Texas classic

Imageby Mark Tichenor

Unless you’re from Texas, you’ve likely never heard of the Spoetzl Brewery. It’s small, with only 120 employees. They never affiliated with any of the big boys, and the name sounds like a type of Swabian dumpling.

Chances are, however, that you have heard of Spoetzl’s claim to fame: Shiner Bock. It’s through this iconic Texas brew that one gains an appreciation of the resilience and old-school  tenacity of this classic brewery.

Not so long ago, the American brewing industry was a shambles. Prohibition drove most of the small breweries out of business, and many more were killed by the megabreweries, whose preferred method of friendly competition was aquiusition and liquidation of regional brewers with the temerity to stand in their way. By the late 1970s, only a few independent breweries remained.

Spoetzl was one such survivor, and its history intertwines richly with that of the German Americans whose descendents settled the Lone Star State in the second half of the 19th century.

Founded as the Shiner brewing Association in Shiner, Texas in 1909, the brewery was able, after a couple of years, to get ahold of a Bavarian-born and trained brewmaster by the name of Kosmos Spoetzl, who implemented the techniques and formulations of Munich breweries. He first brewed Shiner Bock in 1917, and the beer has been with us ever since.

Well, mostly ever since. In 1920 a bunch of zealous people did a really dumb thing and enacted prohibition, which pretty much killed all legal brewing enterprise. Shiner soldiered through it by selling Ice (which must have come with its own challenges in Texas), and near-beer, which was very likely nearly delicious.

Spoetzl was one of five independent breweries remaining in Texas after repeal, and managed to hold onto a sliver of the market as the major national brewers moved in. The craft beer movement breathed new life into the brewery, transforming Shiner Bock into a symbol of state pride and ultimately catapulting the brewery to becoming the 4th largest craft brewer in the country.

Following the movement, the brewery branched out, making interpretations of Belgian witbier, Hefeweizen, seasonal beers, and a gamut of other styles in a move that changed the Spoetzl’s direction from a plainclothes regional beer producer to a true craft brewer. Now that they’re  rolling into Upstate New York, I gave three Spoetzl beers a taste.

Shiner Bock, the classic, does not strictly adhere to the German style. Rather it’s a bock filtered through the American experience over time. Pleasantly sweet and lightly grainy, Shiner Bock veers away from an expected thick mouthfeel and remains quenching, yet substantial.

It’s hearty, but not overbearing beer that deserves a premium status while remaining appealing to a broad spectrum of beer drinkers. With this as the brewery’s flagship product, it’s easy to see how Spoezl was able to carve out a strong market among superpremium and craft beer lovers.

Belgian white ale (witbier) relies on sensual clashes for effect, and Shiner White Wing pulls them off with aplomb. An alluring golden hue is countered by near-opacity as the yeast floats in suspension. A sweet aroma devolves into strong notes of coriander and clove, and those spice notes reprise themselves on the palate, with an unapologetic allspice finish and the tiniest hint of hops as you swallow. It’s pleasantly prickly, and refreshing as hell.

Most holiday beers tend to club the imbiber over the head with spices and hamfisted hop flavor. This is not the case with Shiner Cheer. Unexpectedly soft on the palate, this beer, is a big, fragrant whirl of blackcurrant, molasses and…peach? The low notes of dark fruit and toffee get nicely offset by sharper tree fruit character that mostly reveals itself on the exhale after the swallow. I’ve never been a big fan of holiday ales, but this is a beer I would not only order, but look forward to in the following year.

Disclaimer: I started this column expecting to be underwhelmed by Spoetzl, based on a predetermined image of staid regional-size American brewery stereotypes of name-coasting and success through geographic favoritism. Instead, I discovered three skillfully brewed beers, all of which brought something interesting to the table. Based on what I tasted today, Shiner beers are a more than welcome addition to the Western New York beer scene, and while they may not prove that everything is better in Texas, they certainly make a compelling argument that those German American cowboys know a thing or two about making very good beer.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to