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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bud Light Platinum: Where Taste and Common Sense Don't Meet

Budweiser has contributed a lot to the marketing extravaganza that is the Super Bowl. Let's face it. The folks at Anheuser-Busch/InBev have a lot of cash to throw at advertising messages and campaigns. Advertising is their lifeblood, and an example of how spending a lot of money can keep consumers buying a flawed product.

Who can forget the marketing genius of the infamous Bud Bowl promotion? It had an eight-year run, 1989-1997. Bottles of beer with football helmets butting heads. Very popular. I always thought the Bud Bowls were first rate idiocy, an affront to the intelligence of football fans.

In spite of their ad budgets and ingenious campaigns, Bud and the other big boy macros have been losing market share. The downturn has been well-documented on this blog and elsewhere. Some big boy brand segments are in free fall, seeing 30-72 percent sales declines between 2006 and 2010. Ye gods!

The one brand segment that keeps them afloat is light beer. Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite don't show up on the list of declining brand segments. Americans continue to suck up light beers, while steering away from old standards like original Budweiser, Miller and Coors.

Of course, some of the loss of big boy market share can be attributed to craft beer. The craft segment is small, but growing, and has essentially chipped away at the middle and top of the macro brands. Budweiser can no longer position Bud and Michelob as premium beers. Consumers are looking elsewhere.

Available now, just in time for the big game!

Anheuser-Busch's response to this reality is to expand their light beer segment, which they have done with Bud Light with Lime, Bud Select and others. These forays have seen limited success. Bud Select was a monumental flop. But onward they come, chasing the days when they dominated the beer market.

And so it is that they have released a new 'light" beer to coincide with the Super Bowl. We will almost certainly see this product advertised during the game. The beer is Bud Light Platinum. It comes is a flashy blue bottle and is nominally a light beer. But at 6% ABV, you wonder how it fits into the "light" category. Hmmmm.

If the marketing gurus at AB think increasing the alcohol content of Bud Light will help them steal back consumers who have switched to craft beer, I think they're chasing their tails. But maybe they are on to something. Perhaps they have additional exciting ideas up their sleeves:
  • Bourbon Barrel-aged Bud Light Platinum
  • Bud Light Platinum in a 750 ml bottle with a wax dipped cap
  • Imperial Bud Light Platinum
  • Cask-conditioned Bud Light Platinum
  • Special release Bud Light Platinum for the Oregon Brewers Festival
Anyway, be sure to watch for the BL Platinum ads during the game. But make sure your Super Bowl party cooler is well-stocked with craft beer.

Update: Stltoday.com has a nice review of what AB/InBev has in mind with Bud Light Platinum. They essentially say they're going after a "higher end, more sophisticated" consumer. Too bad the packaging and ad campaign are where the money is being spent. Maybe one of these days AB/InBev will invest in making quality beer. Oh, in case you were wondering, we'll be seeing two (apparently) 30-second ads for Bud Light Platinum during the Super Bowl. The cost: $3.5 million each. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Widmer Keeps Things Interesting

The other day I mentioned in the comments of another blog that I did not attend a recent media tasting at Widmer. Not invited. The fact is, this blog hasn't been around that long and I'm not as well connected as I would like to be. I'm working on fixing that, but it takes time.

There was a fair amount of commentary around the blogs about Widmer's new beers...Dark Saison and Spiced IPA. I made a trip down to the Gasthaus last night to check out the new beers. The Dark Saison has been on tap at my athletic club for several weeks so I'd already tasted it. The IPA just became available.

Spiced IPA

As noted, the Dark Saison is on tap at my club. Yep. We drink a bit of beer after racquetball and have been doing so for years. This is at Lloyd Athletic Club next to Lloyd Center. It's a sort of private tavern for some members. And the club has a longstanding connection to Widmer, so I guess we get some beers before they are in common release.

Anyway, Dark Saison is brewed in the classic French farmhouse style, with about 10 percent wheat and some dark malts that provide color, but not much backbone. They use Wyeast Saison yeast. The beer has a citrus character on the pallet, thanks to the Saaz hops. I liked this beer when I first tried it several weeks ago and I had the same reaction last night. Good stuff.

Spiced IPA is the fourth entry in Widmer's Rotator IPA series. Just to jog everyone's memory, the order goes like this: X-114 IPA, Falconer IPA, O'Ryely IPA (made with rye) and now Spiced IPA.The Rotator IPA series is intended to give Widmer brewers a chance to experiment within the style. It's a great idea.

Spiced IPA is made by blending in black tea and unspecified spices after fermentation. It comes across as a bright and marginally spicy beer. The specs say 70 IBUs, but hop aroma, flavor and bitterness seem slightly subdued.

Frankly speaking, I have liked the odd-numbered Rotator releases...X-114 and O'Ryely. I did not like Falconer and I do not particularly care for Spiced IPA. I'll taste it again when it appears on tap at the club and see if my reaction is the same. I suspect a lot of people will like this beer. Give Widmer credit. The approach is definitely inventive and unique. It just isn't my cup of tea. (Insert laugh)

Widmer Impresses
When I was putting together the entry on Widmer Brothers Brewing for my eBook last summer, I concluded they were producing a lot of good beers, but perhaps falling behind some of the smaller breweries in terms of experimentation. That section will now need to be rewritten.

The tap list when I visited the Gasthaus back in July was comprised of eight beers, plus a couple of seasonal selections. Last night's list had 14 beers, including some you won't see around town. The beer list and the newly released beers suggest that Widmer is back in the groove, continuing to produce the great beers they're known for while pursuing experimental projects that will lead to bigger and better things.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Another Look at Brewery Growth

Some new numbers from the Brewers Association (BA) got me thinking again about brewery growth. I have a couple of earlier posts that investigate these trends. You can read them here and here if you haven't already. Or you can just read on.

One of the things all of us have to keep in mind when looking at these numbers is they are quite fluid. The BA tracks the number of existing and planned breweries every month. As they themselves admit, brewers are far more reliable about reporting when they've opened than when they've closed. Thus, the numbers for 2011 won't be official for several weeks.

The graph below is a visual version of numbers that appeared on the BA website last week (link). It shows the number of existing breweries and the number of planned breweries as of the end of each year. In creating a visual version of the stats, I hoped it would clarify the growth relationship between existing and planned breweries.

First, note that the existing brewery count is approaching 2000 (1,949). Notice, however, that growth is not off the hook. From the end of 2008 to the end of 2011, we added about 450 breweries to the existing column. That's an average of just over 100 a year. Please remember, this is a net number. The BA gets the end-of-year number by subtracting closures from openings.

Now look at how the number of planned breweries keeps creeping up on the number of existing ones. There's a clear trend here. In 2008, planned breweries (207) represented a small fraction of the existing count (1,496). By the end of 2011, the planned number (915) approached half the number of existing breweries (1,949). Wow!

Below is another way of looking at what's going on. It shows the number of planned breweries at the end of each year against the actual increase in total breweries at the end of the following year. For example, there were 207 new breweries in planning at the end of 2008. A year later, we saw a net increase of just 50. And so on.

So even though the number of planned new breweries rises fairly dramatically each year, the actual net increase in existing breweries shows reasonably consistent growth. I'll be interested to see what this graph looks like in a year given the fact that the number of planned breweries continues to nearly double.

What's missing here? Well, it would be nice to know how many places are closing each year. Having that number would help determine the true new brewery count vs. the number planned. Planned brewery numbers fluctuate wildly. It sometimes takes a while for planned breweries to open...and some never open. Do planned breweries ever go from start-up to open in a calendar year? Inquiring minds.

Time to see if the folks at the Brewers Association can help. Until I have more information, I'm going to conclude that planned brewery numbers have only a passing relationship with actual yearly growth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Help! Canned Beer Prices Make No Sense

I've mentioned the canning of craft beer before, but I feel the need to bring it up again because I'm perplexed. I fail to understand the pricing strategy with canned beer. I'm not alone.

Just to review, it seems completely reasonable to me that more good beer should come in cans. The myth of canned beer tasting bad has been widely debunked. Modern cans use a liner that keeps the aluminum and the beer separate. In fact, cans completely protect beer from light, the most significant cause of beer degradation in shipping and shelving.

As I noted in my earlier post, cans are convenient. They're less prone to breakage when dropped or jostled around. They are light and compact. You can take canned beer places you would never take bottles. They are also easier to display on store shelves because they can be easily stacked.

Beyond convenience, cans offer are environmental benefits. Aluminum is the most recycled form of packaging worldwide. About 44 percent of an average aluminum can comes from recycled material. Obviously, cans are lighter and less costly to ship.  Less energy is used in the aluminum can loop than with glass.

Given the various positive factors, I keep wondering why canned beer seems to cost more than bottles. I consistently see six-packs of cans priced between $9 and $12. Nearby, six-packs of similar bottled beer are selling for $8 to $10. What's up with that?

I've asked around. Nobody has a reasonable answer. 

Does canned craft beer cost more because it's relatively new and the start-up costs are high? Well, this movement has been underway for several years. There's mobile canning out there now, so investment in an expensive canning line shouldn't be an issue. If it was an issue for places that jumped in early on, you'd think the start-up costs would be paid down by now.

Does it cost more because it's a novelty that can be priced higher with no effect on sales? If that's that case, craft beer in a can may stay a novelty. The current pricing structure offers little incentive to consumers who are open to switching to cans. 

What about buying discounts? Are higher prices the result of retailers buying less craft beer in a can? It's easy understand why retailers might be reluctant to move away from bottles. Beer consumers have been conditioned to believe any beer in a bottle is better than the same thing in a can. 

My thoughts? Even though canned craft beer makes good sense to me, the only solid selling point it has at the moment is convenience. For the movement to really take off, prices of cans will need to align fairly closely with prices on bottled beer.

Comments and explanations welcome. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pop Go(s)es the Apuckerlips

It's always a treat to stop by Cascade Brewing Barrel House. You never know what special treats they may have lurking in the barrels behind the bar...unless, of course, you get regular emails telling which special beers are  being poured. And when.

(L-R) Autumn, Summer, Spring, Winter

Last Thursday marked the annual Four Goses of the Apuckerlips event. Gose (pronounced gose-uh) is an historic, sour wheat beer. Each of Cascade's four Goses is designed for a season. They are light and just slightly sour. Each one is brewed with sea salt and various spices and they all come in around 5.5% ABV.

They were pouring Spring Gose 2011, spiced with wild chamomile, lemon peel and culinary lavender; Autumn Gose 2010, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel; Summer Gose 2011, spiced with coriander; and  Winter Gose 2011, spiced with rose hips, orange peel and cinnamon.

These were all good beers. I am a big fan of the Cascade beers, especially the ones that don't exert ultra-tart flavors. The Gose beers are all pleasantly sour, light and crisp. It makes sense. These are wheat beers and the ABV is near session level. Each of them is tasty and highly refreshing.

My favorite, for what its worth because opinions are going to vary, was the Summer 2011 Gose. It's creamy smooth body and mellow spices are followed up by lingering and dusty lemon finish. "Hey," I thought. "I could drink a lot of this stuff on a hot summer day." Wait, I could drink a lot of it almost any day.

I continue to be impressed with the blending and aging program they have going on at the Barrel House. Lots of other breweries are playing around with barrel-aging and blending. But no one, to my knowledge, is doing it on the scale that it is being done here. Not in Portland.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Black Friday Follow-up and Notes

One of the things I strive for with this blog and anything else I write for public consumption is journalistic integrity. With respect to beer, I refuse to simply parrot what the various breweries, pubs and retailers. I collect information from the appropriate sources and interject my own thoughts as I write.

I followed that course when I put together the post on the Return of Workhorse at Laurelwood. I first reported the official reason why Workhorse was taken out of production: a shortage of hops. That's the information they gave me. I then provided a personal interpretation of why Workhorse was taken out of production: to make way for Gearhead as their standard IPA, with an imperial version of Workhorse to be released soon thereafter.

Workhorse is back on Laurelwood's big board

My interpretation was not well-received by Laurelwood brass. It's not hard to understand why. A lot of people were unhappy about the demise of Workhorse and many of them didn't believe the official explanation. I was tossing gasoline on the fire. You get the drift.

In the spirit of fair play and good beer, I spent some time talking to Laurelwood brewmaster, Vasili Gletsos, yesterday. I had not met him before. We spent an hour or so bouncing all kinds of beer thoughts around. Vasili is a great guy. They're lucky to have him at Laurelwood and I suspect he will do great things there.

Below are a few updates to my prior post, based on my conversation with Vasili:
  • Although Laurelwood considered tweaking the Workhorse recipe and releasing it as an imperial IPA, they eventually decided against the idea. Plans change all the time, Vasili said. 
  • There are no plans to release an imperial version of Workhorse this year. An imperial version may happen at some point, but the timeline is uncertain.When it happens, Imperial Workhorse will likely be part of their specialty series, with availability limited to select bottleshops.
  • Gearhead is Laurelwood's standard IPA going forward, widely  available on draft and in bottles at grocery stores, bottleshops, etc.
  • The A-Z IPA program was never intended to be lengthy. As Workhorse was running out last summer/fall, Vasili launched the A-Z program and named the first few beers after racehorses...Aftershock, Best Bet and C-Biscuit. The "D"-beer wound up being Gearhead, which they decided to launch to replace of Workhorse, and the A-Z program was tabled.
  • A little off the beaten path, Vasili said making less Workhorse has freed up brewing capacity and given them more room to experiment with new ideas. He hopes to use some of that production capacity to produce a lager, with a probable summer release.
So there you have it. My supposition that Workhorse was taken out of production so they could easily release Gearhead and later launch Imperial Workhorse over the top appears to have been mistaken. Their plans for Imperial Workhorse are too uncertain to suggest that strategic course.

As for the A-Z program, the information I was given by a Laurelwood employee last summer was incorrect. Vasili had only recently joined the brewery at that time. He says they are working to improve communication between the brewhouse and the pub.

Deschutes Outing
While I'm (sorta) on the subject of Workhorse, there are a growing number of beers out there that offer similar hops character. This surely has something to do with the fact that the hophead pallet increasingly seeks IPAs that feature piney, citrus, grapefruit notes in flavor and aroma. 

Hop City 2 is front left

On a quick lunch outing today, I tasted an IPA that reminded me a lot of Workhorse  The beer is Deschutes Hop City 2. It's one of their special selections at the Portland pub and they're calling it an experimental IPA. It has 95 IBUs and 9% ABV. Excellent lunch numbers, eh?

More importantly for hopheads, Hop City 2 uses nine hop varieties. It features the same kinds of citrus, pine and grapefruit notes that in my mind make Workhorse so popular. Hop City 2 also reminds me Boneyard RPM. Workhorse, RPM and Hop City 2 make a nice trio, despite Hop City 2's higher ABV. Round 'em up!

There was another beer on the taster tray that deserves mention. In the photo above, it's the beer to the right of Hop City 2. This is a blended beer from their Reserve stock. They evidently blended two parts Black Butte XXII with one part of what he referred to as a "house sour." No matter. This beer has a solid backbone, rich chocolate notes, and is wrapped in a mildly sour presentation. Really terrific job, Deschutes!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Return of Workhorse

A lot of local hopheads will surely be happy to learn that Workhorse has returned. The popular IPA is now available on draft at Laurelwood's pubs, and draft is the only way you'll find it. More on that in a minute.

Workhorse had been out of production for several months. The official reason for the hiatus was a shortage of the hops required to make the beer, particularly Simcoe. My previous post on what happened with Workhorse is here. The story, as well as my view of what they're doing, has changed somewhat.

Yep, Workhorse is back in the pubs

As Laurelwood eased Workhorse out of the daily mix in late September, they launched Gearhead, a lighter IPA at 6.5% ABV (vs 7.5% for Workhorse). Gearhead has effectively replaced Workhorse as the brewery's flagship IPA. You can find it on draft and in 22 oz. bottles around town.

Coinciding with the release of Gearhead, Laurelwood also launched an A-Z IPA program. They were supposedly going to produce a series of IPAs with names A-Z in the absence of Workhorse. The first three entries were Aftershock, Best Best and C-Biscuit. That program was soon abandoned.

A picture began to emerge as I bounced emails back and forth with Laurelwood owner, Mike De Kalb. He told me they intended to bring Workhorse back as soon as the necessary hops were available in a few months. He said they might reposition the beer as an imperial IPA due to the relatively high ABV. Later, he told me Workhorse would only be available on draft in his pubs.

When I heard it was back on draft, I stopped by the Sandy Blvd. location (a hop and a skip from home) to check it out. Sure enough, this was the beer many of us had been missing for several months. The specs and taste are the same. Hmmm, I thought. I wonder what happened to the idea of repositioning Workhorse as an imperial IPA?

Gearhead: the only readily available Laurelwood IPA for now

Well, De Kalb now tells me they decided not to tweak the recipe and reposition Workhorse. For now, at least. However, they will introduce an imperial version that will be available on draft and in bottles later in the year. No word on whether Imperial Workhorse will be a seasonal or standard beer. My guess is the latter.

I have long-believed the strategy behind taking Workhorse out of production was to expand Laurelwood's IPA line. Workhorse had to be removed from the picture to open the door for Gearhead, a beer that doesn't turn heads in the same way. Now that Gearhead is established, they'll bring in Imperial Workhorse over the top.

As I said in my earlier post, I think it's smart marketing for Laurelwood to have two IPAs out there. It's the most popular style around here, for better or worse, and having two versions available in pubs and bottles is good business...regardless of the zigzags in the official version of how they arrived here.

Unfortunately, they have succeeded in pissing a lot of people off in the process of doing what they're doing. Many people I've talked to have expressed frustration with the changes surrounding Workhorse and say they can no longer support Laurelwood. I suspect those feelings will pass, but negative PR is never a good thing, even when it's related to a change that seems to make good business sense. We'll see what the long-term fallout is.

Getting back to the tease at the top, Workhorse is only available at Laurelwood pubs at the moment. Officially. I believe it has been spotted at other places around town, but it's possible those pubs are finally tapping stashed kegs. You can't get it in a bottle anywhere, but growler fills are available.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Big Trend for 2011? Event Craziness

I've been reading a lot of year-in-review posts on various blogs. We all feel the need to share what we think were the most significant developments of 2011. Ezra posted a review in photos over on The New School blog and Jeff shared his view of the trends on the Beervana blog. All well and good.

While I'd love to talk about the growing popularity of barrel-aged beers or the changing pallet of Oregon beer drinkers, it seems to me the runaway trend for 2011 was the frenetic number of special events that graced the calendar all year long. Seriously off the hook.

One of many

I've mentioned this before. The pace of events and special beer releases got to the point last year that most of us couldn't keep up. There was talk of event fatigue as summer waned and the beer scene became a blur. Things didn't slow much into the fall.

I leave it to readers to decide if the virtual tsunami of special events, brewer's tastings, mini-festivals, etc., is good for the craft industry. I realize the power of social media is growing and that breweries and beer fans feel the need to use it. Everyone wants to promote their brand. However, I think there's a bit of ADHD involved.

One more...

One of the offshoots of the special event craze is that everyone feels the need to brew special beers for these things. This has gone far beyond the seasonal concept. Breweries are producing special beers often with eclectic ingredients and unrefined recipes to support special events.

All these special beers, whether they are summer beers, fresh hop beers or strong winter beers, typically share the fact that they are produced for events. It is no longer cool to pour one of your house beers at a special event. Nope. You've got to create excitement and buzz by creating something truly unique and possibly reckless. Toss in some pumpkin rind, cloves, vanilla beans, coffee beans, peppermint, bacon, wet hops, cranberries, chilies, dandelions, etc. Whatever it takes.

And one more

Let me digress for a moment. On a recent road trip, I visited several breweries. These are all well-known establishments with great beer lists. My conclusion was that the standard house beers were far more refined than the seasonal offerings.

I started thinking about it. Why wouldn't that be the case? Brewers spend a lot of time and effort refining their house beers...often over many years or decades. Seasonal beers don't generally get the same sort of attention. Gee, I wonder where special event beers appear on the priority list?

So our ADHD-inspired special event calendar may well be creating a playground for experimental brewing, but the beers produced are not always particularly good. In fact, my experience is that the beers are often half-baked and not ready for prime time. I'll let you decide the meaning of this.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Boneyard Builds Unique Brand

Bend's Boneyard Brewing has turned a lot of heads among Portland's craft beer fans since it opened in April 2010. The brand that built a reputation primarily on a couple of excellent IPAs is moving onward and upward.

The quasi-elegance of the Boneyard brand

There's no pretentiousness here. When you pull up in front of Boneyard, located in a mixed residential/industrial neighborhood in Northwest Bend, you are greeted by a rustic, ornamental motorcycle. Brewdog, X, is casually vigilant near the warehouse door. This is old school.

Walking up to the door, I was greeted by co-owner and head brewer Tony Lawrence. This was strictly by chance. I didn't call in advance to arrange a tour or interview. I was pleased to meet Lawrence, then amazed when he spent more than an hour showing me the place and telling me about Boneyard.

Beerlogist checks his production notebook

Lawrence, who formerly worked at Deschutes Brewing and Firestone Walker, announces himself as a beerologist, saying it more accurately describes his role. There are several brewers on the payroll at Boneyard and they were hard at work as I walked around with the boss. The 20 bbl brewhouse and collection of fermenters are packed into the available space.

The Boneyard tag itself is interesting. Bend beer fans will probably recall that this place was originally to be called Brewtal Brewing (according to the initial story in The Bulletin). The name morphed into Boneyard Brewing prior to the opening in April 2010. There are reasons for everything.

An example of Boneyard's make-it-here approach

"Boneyard is a name that makes sense for us," Lawrence said, "because beer isn't the only thing we make here. We make a lot of the stuff used in the operation. We can weld and we make our own tap handles, among other things. Recycling discarded stuff from the proverbial boneyard for use in and around the brewery is something we strive for."

As for the beer, Boneyard has a serious problem: They simply cannot make enough beer in the current facility to keep up with demand. They have risen quickly on the OLCC's sales list, coming in at #20 on the Year-to-Date Taxable Barrels sales report for October 2011 (the reports are always two months behind, Lawrence said).

They will soon add three additional fermenters to the mix. That will increase output somewhat, perhaps to the point where Boneyard can begin to seriously think about actively pursuing distribution by 16 oz. can. That plan has been on the drawing board from early on. They even own a $35,000 canning machine...which sits idle.

Canned RPM IPA will eventually happen

"I had hoped to be doing some distribution by can by now," Lawrence said. "But we're barely able to keep up with draft distribution (just the Northwest for now) and there's no way I want to alienate our distributors by launching the canning project and shorting our draft supply. We'll get to canning when we're ready."

It seems likely they won't be ready until next summer at the soonest. Lawrence said Boneyard recently signed a lease on a new building which will house a 50 bbl brewhouse, with plenty of space for fermenters and growth.

"The reality is we just don't have enough room in the present building to house the kind of brewing facility we need to be able to build out the brand," Lawrence said. "The new space, once we get it up to speed, will allow us to supply the draft and retail distribution channels...I hope."

The current brewing operation...too small

When retail distribution comes, RPM IPA in 4-packs of 16 oz. cans will be the first beer to appear on shelves. It will be available primarily at bottle shops and perhaps at grocery stores like Whole Foods and New Seasons. Lawrence isn't ruling out distribution by bottle and says a 750 ml bottle is possible.

"Canning is the road we plan to go down, and we're set up for it," he said. "But never say never with respect to bottles. I see successful breweries doing draft, cans and bottles. You never know. We don't want to rule anything out."

The Boneyard tasting room, located at the brewery, is small and friendly. Beer fans headed to or through Bend absolutely must stop by. The motif fits in well with the uniqueness of the Boneyard brand. Generous tastes will cost you $1 a piece, well worth it.

On my visit, they were pouring RPM IPA, Skunk Ape IRA, Femme Fatale, Backbone and Diablo Rojo Red in the tasting room. All were quite good. I also tasted Hop Venom from a fermenter, which was a little green, as well and several other beers in the backroom. Fun times.

The Boneyard tasting board

Lawrence, the perfectionist, claimed the RPM was a little off. He said a new batch of hops was somewhat green and had shifted the taste in an unfavorable way. Honestly, I thought it tasted fine. RPM has a great aroma and some of the citrus and pine notes that make it a viable competitor for Pliny the Elder.

One final note on Hop Venom and RPM: Lawrence said he is in the process of dialing both of these beers down a bit in terms of ABV. RPM, currently 7.5%, is being dialed down to about 7%. Hop Venom will go from 10% to 8.8%. This is part of an effort to improve the drinkability of both beers.