Drinking with Will Gordon: New Beck's Sapphire Is Better Than the Original


Last week the city sent out census confirmation forms on which both my wife and I were listed as "students." This is incorrect. She has an actual job-job with health insurance and an employee cafeteria and unlimited Post-It access and the whole deal. I am less traditionally employed, but even though I conduct rigorous peer-reviewed pot pie studies, I am not affiliated with a formal academic institution.

I do spend a lot of time at the library, though, and on my last trip there I had a hankering for a New Yorkish novel. None sprang immediately to mind and I was in a hurry, so I sprint-browsed the nearest paperback rack for half a minute before deciding that "By Nightfall," by Michael Cunningham, was likely New Yorkish due to the blurry cover image of headlights and tall buildings. And indeed the protagonists are a successful art dealer and his sexy magazine editor wife. Life is easy sometimes.

Yes, you often can judge a book by its cover. Everybody knows this, we just don't always like to admit it, because it makes life less interesting. Wouldn't it be neat if at least one of the books whose covers are full of shoes and cupcakes turned out to be a 350-page treatise on aftermarket farm equipment modification? Or starred a person who is not a 31-year-old woman in New York or London?

Although this would be a neat surprise, it would also make book selection confusing and time-consuming. I don't need everything spelled out as explicitly as a genre fiction cover, but I do appreciate it when general consumer life offers up coherent semiotic patterns. This is often the case in the eating and drinking fields: The brown bananas are too old, the green bananas are too young, and the restaurants with license plates on the walls have too much sour mix in the margaritas.

There is, however, a sad lack of such clarity in the craft beer world, where names are thrown around in a random-seeming fashion that tends to confirm just one thing: There aren't enough women in the industry. This is why we have so many excellent beers with irrelevantly macho or puerile names, such as Stone Arrogant Bastard, Rogue Yellow Snow, Clown Shoes Tramp Stamp, and all the dumb ones from Flying Dog (Raging Bitch IPA, In-Heat Wheat, Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, Doggie Style Pale Ale). Makes one long for the days when craft beers were all just named after the brewmaster's pets.

In the end it's the beer that counts, and these new fellas are doing a great job on that front, but they could still take a few style pointers from the big old conglomerates that pump out what we so often (and so accurately) deride as "marketing in a bottle." A couple of days ago I reviewed the new Budweiser Black Crown, an evocatively named, handsomely packaged, and slickly promoted beer that is—incidentally—an upgrade over regular Budweiser.

It seems that Budweiser is sharing its market research data with at least one of its fellow St. Louis-brewed Anheuser-Bush InBev brands, as the erstwhile German stalwart Beck's has just introduced an eerily similar upgrade to its flagship lager. Beck's Sapphire resembles Black Crown from its classy name to its black-on-black packaging to its increase from 5% to 6% alcohol by volume.

Beck's performed very poorly in my ultra-scientific German Beer Olympics last summer. I'd always assumed the skunkiness was due to the long trip the green bottles had to make from Germany, but it's brewed in Missouri now, so I decided that the skunk character must just be part of the recipe. But I still picked up a single of the regular Beck's to compare to the new Sapphire, and I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be the first unspoiled Beck's I can remember drinking. Once you strip away the skunk, there's an acceptable pilsner left over; there's not much depth, but it's crisp and clean and inoffensively beery. A fresh Beck's will do.

In addition to packaging and marketing similarities, Beck's Sapphire also resembles Budweiser Black Crown in the only way that matters: It's a better version of its predecessor. It's hard to say just how much better it is, because that depends so heavily on how skunked the green-bottle Beck's in question happens to be. But Sapphire was noticeably superior to the best Beck's of my life, so it's safe to say that it's an across-the-board upgrade.

The Sapphire name is derived from the inclusion of the aromatic saphir hop that's gaining popularity in its native Germany. My cynical side wonders about the coincidence of this beer just so happening to use a hop strain with a marketer's dream of a name, but even if the recipe was developed to fit the name rather than vice versa, Beck's Sapphire does indeed have a hop presence that sets it apart from the old Beck's.

Sapphire is an easy-drinking, medium-bodied pilsner with very little aroma to speak of and a sweet bready malt flavor augmented by a light grassy, fruity hop character. This isn't a special beer by any means, but it's born better than ancestral Beck's and the dark bottle should help it stay that way a little longer on the shelf.