Written by Jay Brooks for The Brookston Beer Bulletin
I almost forgot about this. The week before last I got a call from the local CBS television station, CBS 5, asking me to comment on a story they were working on regarding a recent Consumer Reports beer tasting that was published in their August issue. In Bargain beer from Costco, they had consumers taste blind the Kirkland brand beers, Costco’s private label beer, with prominent commercial brands of a similar style — Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Samuel Adams Boston Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Paulaner Hefe-Weizen.
The conclusion was that their “untrained panelists liked the Costco beers about as much as the same-style name-brand beers. (For each type, some people liked the Kirkland Signature better, some liked the brand name better, and some liked both equally.) Our consultants said that although the brand-name beers were more flavorful, clean-tasting, and complex, the Costco beers were quite quaffable and, to use the consultants’ technical term, ‘party-worthy.’”
The CBS producer asked me if I was “surprised” by those results.
I explained that I wasn’t, and proceeded to tell her about the basics of how a private label beer is created, that licensed commercial breweries work with a retailer to create and brew the beer for them. I did a number of private label lines of beers when I worked at Beverages & more, beers like Coastal Fog, Brandenburg Gate and Truman’s True Brew. We also had a label in development to be called J.R. Brooks to do English styles like India Pale Ale, but I left before it saw the light of day. Anyway, I went on explaining that almost any private label beer done by a good brewery will likewise be pretty good, too. Nothing surprising about it all. It’s simply that most consumers probably don’t think about where the beer comes from, nor should they, I suppose. All that matters is that it tastes good. And then I added, almost as an afterthought, just to hammer home the point that private label beers that come from good homes are usually good beers, that it was Gordon Biersch that created and brewed the Costco beers.
At that point, the producer asked if they could come to my home in Novato and interview me on camera for the story they were working on. I agreed, but they called back and asked if there might be some beer-themed location that might also work. I suggested Moylan’s brewpub, since it’s only a mile or so from my house. We met there, they shot some B-roll of me walking with beer, sniffing a beer, drinking a beer, getting a beer poured. Then they picked a location and we sat down to talk on camera for about ten minutes. As I expected, they used under a minute in the finished story.
The video itself is online, but you’ll have to watch it there as they don’t seem to allow embedding.
You never know how these things will turn out, and the bit they zeroed on on, of course, was that the beer was made by Gordon Biersch. They treated it like a scoop of sorts, though it’s not exactly a secret. Whenever a contract private label beer is made, publicly available forms must be filed with the proper authorities, labels approved, etc. The labels, of course, by law must include the city and state where the beer was brewed, so it’s usually not that hard to figure out who made a private label beer. When you see Paso Robles, CA on a Trader Joe’s beer, you can pretty much guess that Firestone Walker brewed it. So when the Kirkland beers labels read “San Jose, California,” there aren’t too many production breweries in San Jose that could have made it. Really, anybody with just a little knowledge could have figured it out. When the labels were first approved, several people reported the news that Gordon Biersch would be making the Kirkland beers, myself included. I even spoke to Dan Gordon about it briefly at the time. But then they came out, and the news died away, as these things tend to do.
On the TV report, they said they tried to reach Gordon Biersch but got “no comment” so I hope I didn’t “out” Dan in some way that will make life tough for him, though in truth I doubt that’s possible. As I said, who does private label contract beers is more of an open secret, everybody in the beer community knows who does them and the records with the specifics are public. It’s just that the public at large doesn’t usually care enough or have the inside knowledge necessary to figure it out, even if they did want to know.
I think what’s more surprising is that neither Consumer Reports or CBS thought to question who made the beer. In a report about comparing the taste of two different beers, one by a commercial brewery and one a private label beer, shouldn’t that have been the first question Consumer Reports asked: who made the second beer? That would have gone a long way in explaining the result, don’t you think?