Thursday, October 19, 2017

#Merica!… Back of House, Bud, and Blais

The first evidence that macro breweries were planning to publicly take on the rising tide of craft beer precipitated during the 2015 Superbowl ads. The one-minute slideshow comparing the everyman’s macro beer with fussy professors pining over snifters was a clear message that Budweiser isn’t going to roll over and take it anymore. It was also proof that the brand considers craft beer to be threatening enough to forgo the typical Clydesdale horses and puppies for more targeted advertising. Phrases now facetiously quoted in beer circles everywhere – “Beechwood Aged!” and “Brewed the Hard Way!” – were born of this gutsy ad, which ultimately served to make the craft industry say, “it’s on” in one collective voice.

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This template of Budweiser equals America, Craft Beer equals snobby was repeated during the 2016 Superbowl with eye-roll-inducing predictability. Things got a bit embarrassing when Budweiser went on to purchase several small breweries throughout 2015, one of which was responsible for a beer the first ad poked fun at.

More recently, just about the time that the now infamous Budweiser America name change was hitting the mainframe, there was also a series of webisodes launched by the mega-brand featuring Top Chef alum, Richard Blais, as host. Normally the mention of a Budweiser sponsorship makes me close my ear doors, but the partnership with this notable chef caught my attention.

It is a series called Back of House which consists of tightly scripted drop-ins by Chef Blais at various casual-fine-dining American restaurants. Episode one introduces a noble charter: to give the back of house “the recognition they deserve”, says Blais, who is best known for his time as a contestant on Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, and as a judge for the same Top Chef family of competition.  Let me cut to the chase if you’re not there already — Back of House is a (very) thinly veiled Budweiser ad campaign disguised as a miniseries about chefing.

Over the course of the first three episodes, Blais visits three esteemed restaurants, well-recognized in the food community. He joins the executive chef or chef de cuisine at each place for a meal, after which he enters the kitchen and announces he will cook burgers for the back of house crew to enjoy over a round of Buds. Yes, really.

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At Hearthstone Kitchen & Cellar, Chef Ren Caceres presents Blais with a 19lb suckling pig. Blais is immensely impressed, calling it “sweet, subtle…some of the best pork that I have ever had.” His response is to cook a burger based on the pig, which is fitting to some degree, as it is a quick and satisfying meal for the line cooks and other staff. But as seconds pass, and more Budweiser bottle-shaped cans fill the frames, the stereotypes begin to overwhelm the storyline. There are no women in the kitchen. Blais asks how some of the cooks got into food, and one refers to taking a home economics class to meet girls. And nothing about the sponsorship is subtle – Budweiser is everywhere — the first image is at 23 seconds.

The message that these webisodes are beating viewers over the head with is crystal clear — Budweiser is Hardworking American Men Eating Burgers and Drinking Everyday Beer. References to blue-collar life abound, including young guys who drop out of school and just fall into cooking somehow, as though there is nothing to it but pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Budweiser is 15-hour days and bro sweat.

At Nashville’s Rolf & Daughters, Chef Philip Krajeck describes his preparations as “seasonal, simple food.” But when examined a bit further, it begs the question: What is seasonal about a Budweiser? Nothing, of course. That is because the Budweiser is for the back of house, not to be paired with the sophisticated dishes. And here is where Blais’ sentiment of honoring the effort of the line cooks really breaks down. Backfires, really.

Richard Blais describes the back of house as the “heartbeat” of the restaurant. “They are the backbone. They make you strong enough to, like, do it all,” responds Krajeck. So why would you serve someone you rely on so heavily a cheap beer that is not in keeping with your values as a company, and that isn’t part of the restaurant’s vision?

Rolf & Daughters doesn’t even offer Budweiser, and their current draft selection includes beer from Blackberry Farm, Wiseacre, Black Abbey, and Jackelope, which are all from Tennessee.

Finally, at Husk, Chef Sean Brock proclaims that he “only cooks food grown in the South”, while the Budweiser propaganda grows. Here is where Brock’s Shrimp and Grits is described as a “working man’s dish”. In this episode, the writers even pull in traditional Christian values, plus a mention of Texas and farming, while the idea of education via culinary school is met with jeering and chuckles.

The absurdity of the product placement becomes more and more palpable after watching the six-minute episodes. There is no mention of how the food pairs with the Budweiser, no talk of the flavors at all, or even a single chef mentioning any quality of the beer. It’s just there. Because cooks.

Don’t misunderstand — I don’t blame Bud for their marketing campaign. And I do appreciate greatly the light it has shed on the hardworking nature of cooks as some of the most under-appreciated and underpaid members of the service industry; these are men and women who we rarely thank but often rely on. What is irksome, and should bother those in both the culinary and beverage industries, is what this campaign promotes about beer, about food, and about the back of house: that beer isn’t worth discussing, is not meant for sophisticated food, and is for hardworking men who can’t appreciate better.

MERICAWith all of these frustrations swirling around in my consciousness, in swoops Surly Brewing (I mean that literally, in bald eagle costumes, see below) to remind me why good food deserves craft beer. There is no question that Surly has campaigned for the power of beer pairing, to the tune of major recognition from Food & Wine magazine as one of the “10 Most Exciting Places to Eat in America Right Now.”

And as though in response to the America beer name change, and the absurdity that Budweiser embodies the spirit of the American beer industry, Surly gives drinkers the lager they deserve. #Merica!, the new pre-Prohibition-style American Lager is an ideal summer beer. It is perfectly designed for enjoying while fireworks boom and the air fills with the scent of grilled meats, but shines equally as well when paired with briny salmon meuniere or apricot crostini.

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The consolidation of smaller breweries seen in the mid-20th century was responsible for the cheaper alternatives to malt used in brewing, most commonly corn or rice. But the term “pre-Prohibition”, also used by breweries like Brooklyn and Anchor, describes a more flavorful lager in which corn is used for flavor, rather than to cut costs.

Surly #Merica! is a lovely example of clear but tempered corn flavor, made crisp and clean by the lagering process. Significant bitterness builds while sipping from the use of Warrior and Willamette hops. The aroma vaguely cereal with herbal undertones.

Those who appreciate craft beer don’t associate Budweiser with the heart of the American brewing industry, and those in the back of house deserve a better reward from a chef like Richard Blais. The more pervasive and subtle myths, though, about beer not standing up to fine dining, are worth examining and challenging, not because beer can’t be an everyday drink, but because it should be an everywhere one.

merica cabin

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