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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Henry Weinhard's Organic Amber

There appears to be an imposter on grocery shelves. In Oregon anyway, a hard line divides micro and macro, and "gourmet" beers like Michelob are kept in their place (with the Hamm's, where the belong). Starting about two weeks ago a sleek sixer bearing the name "Henry Weinhard's" started appearing on the micro section of the beer case. It migrated just a foot, but there it is, like a Sooner on land grab day, on the other side of the line. So, what gives? Did Henry's finally game the system? No: in this case, appearances are misleading. Henry's had made a real micro-quality beer, and it has earned its place among the good beer, a rather remarkable development in industrial brewing.

Before the review, some speculation on what Henry's is up to. Ambers have evolved to become the classic "crossover" beer--an inoffensive style that non-beer (or tin-can-beer) people can tolerate. MacTarnahan's has managed to eke out a marginal place here, but other challengers to the throne continue to pop up--F[l]at Tire, Mac and Jack's, Alaskan. (Full Sail's Amber, which was the first, is too strong, hoppy, and ale-y to fit in this category.) If Henry's was going to mount a charge on this market, they chose a beer that might possibly appeal to their current customers.

But clearly, Miller (current owner of the Weinhard brand) has a more ambitious goal. By crafting an organic ale--and advertising on OPB--Henry's is aiming for a share of the Whole Foods segment. It's a canny move. Ever since Weinhard found a home at the Full Sail plant, it's fallen back into the good graces of Oregonians. For over 30 years, it has had the reputation of being a higher-quality beer than national brands, so trying to move it up the quality ladder is smarter than scrambling for the Pabst market.

And the price point is fully micro--I paid $5.99 for my six-pack, and it was on sale. It's possible they'll keep it marginally cheaper than other micros, but 50 cents isn't going to cause someone to abandon Mirror Pond. Henry's is going to have to compete on taste. Which takes me to . . .

Tasting Notes
It pours out a warm copper-amber, which was the first surprise (I had Blue Boar "Ale"--which looked like every other macro-lager--in my memory). It had a viscosity that you'd expect in a micro ale; unfortunately, the head dissipated rather quickly. Aroma is mild--nutty malting and a fleeting floral essence. In flavor, it's akin to Fat Tire, with an emphasis on malt. It's a little flaccid in the middle, with a cereal-malt-like quality. This is standard for the style, though not thrilling. The hops are detectable, but just. They balance the malt, but don't offer much in the way of actual character. I suspect that in a blind taste test, it would beat Fat Tire and Mac and Jack's, but lose out to MacTarnahans, which has about 50% more bitterness and a lot more hop character.

In terms of commercial prospects, I think the horizon is clear. No bets, but this is a very interesting experiment. Amber- and Hefeweizen-dependent breweries don't have to panic just yet, but they're probably breaking a sweat. We'll see.

Malts: Pale, Crystal
Hops: Mt. Hood, Simcoe
Alcohol by volume: 5.3%
Original Gravity: NA
Bitterness Units: 21
Available: Year round, on your micro shelf at the grocery store

Good (for style).


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