Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fifty Shades of Free Beer: Michelob Ultra vs. 16 Mile Cage Fight Bold Pale Ale

The Rehoboth Beach Marathon was one of my favorites ever. When I was explaining to other people why I liked it so much, I found myself jumping right to a description of the free beer at the after-party. The free beer, donated by 16 Mile Brewery, was the liquid embodiment of all that was great about the race, and, in the bigger picture, of everything that makes it fun to hang out with other human beings.

A while back, I came up with a patented six-point marathon rating matrix, and one of the categories was, free beer. All of the other categories had a 1 to 5 range. But free beer was binary. Unenlightened as I was at the time, I said that “This factor is simple. There either is free beer at the finish line or there is not free beer at the finish line.” 1 or 5.  Oh how very naïve I was.

There’s some variety in the free beers served at the end of races, but the one you see all the time is Michelob Ultra. Michelob Ultra is watery shit swill beer. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with watery shit swill beer. It has its place. If you’re in a situation where the goal is to stand around and drink for an entire day – fishing, jazz festival-ing, watching a friend work on his car, neglecting your marauding children at a neighborhood barbecue – watery shit swill beer might very well be exactly what you want. An 18 pack will only set you back about $15. And there’s almost no alcohol in it, so you can pound down a dozen or so of them and wake up in the morning fresh as a spring day and ready to coach tee ball or teach Sunday school.

What absolutely makes my skin crawl, though, is the advertising theme that goes along with Michelob Ultra. It’s marketed as the beer of athletes and beautiful people with active lifestyles. In the ad, a chiseled, handsome young investment banker bounds out the door of his Manhattan skyscraper at lunch to go x-treme roller blading with his hot, fawning coworker (who, as obviously implied, will probably screw his brains out later that night or, hell, maybe even right then and there after an intense bout of shredding through the city). But none of that changes the reality of what the beer is: Watery. Shit. Swill. Basically 12 ounces of liquid marketing. The icing on the cake is that the main promotional face of Michelob Ultra was, right up until the time physical evidence came to light that 85% of the blood flowing through his veins belonged to someone else, Lance Armstrong.

So, when you finish a race, rip the tab off your bib and exchange it for one free Michelob Ultra (others available for purchase for cash, $4.50 plus a valid drivers license), that’s all well and good. But the scene after the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, organized by the Rehoboth Beach Running Company, was in a whole different stratosphere. Race registration included entry into the after-party. All runners got a neoprene frat party bracelet that got you in, and non-runners could buy one for $20. The after party had a DJ and a big buffet with a full spread of breakfast stuff and lunch stuff. Once you made your decision about whether you wanted a pile of bacon and eggs or a stack of burgers and dogs, you got to the 16 Mile Brewery beer trailer. And the beer trailer had these spectacular party attributes:
  • 3 kinds of delicious, local beer – Seed-Free & Joy, Cage Fight and Tiller Brown!
  • No line!
  • No limit!

Post-marathon hydration be damned! This was a party! I sat down with some old guys who had run the race a bunch of times (“you’re not exactly who we were hoping for, but sure” said one of them when I asked if I could sit with them; the other of whom turned out to be a Delaware judge). They told me that, yeah, the after party usually went on for hours, until the sad moment when the beer trailer got hooked up to the truck (and even then, folks could usually finagle one more round). Fun times and camaraderie all around!

The beer was from the heart – genuinely good and with no aura of bullshit marketing. And the same was true about the race in general. No big corporate sponsors, a quirky packet pick-up in an upscale sushi restaurant, friendly volunteers. No VIP tent, available for an extra price, separating the group out into after-party haves and have-nots. No five-page registration questionnaire demanding information about your finances and spending habits. Just a big fun setup designed to get people to hang out together and have a good time.

The bigger the company, the more diffuse its ownership, the larger the customer base to sell to, the more bland and generalizable and scalable its products have to be. Small, local operations are so refreshing, not for any kind of moral / smug / Michael Pollan reason, but because they’re just more fun. It’s OK to make a buck in the process, but when that’s the only goal, it shows.

Big races organized by big national corporations are usually the ones that give you a ticket for one Michelob Ultra. It’s at the little ones, organized by runners for runners, like Rehoboth Beach, where you’re more likely to get a Cage Fight Bold Ale (“Boxing gloves? You mean Bitch Mittens”) like the one from 16 Mile Brewery. And what could be better than that?

Now that I’ve become more of a grizzled marathon veteran, I have learned the folly of my former ways. “Free beer or no free beer” is a gross oversimplification. There are fifty shades of free beer. And 16 Mile Brewery and the Rehoboth Beach Running Company really know how it’s done. 

Click here to learn more about 16 Mile Brewery, Georgetown, DE.

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Running Company. 

Click here for information about the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

Click here for an article about Charlie Sheen calling Lance Armstrong a douchebag. 




Dave OD said...

Dan, I have loved you for years while all the while being appalled by your "taste" in beer. Thank the lord you are beginning to see the light. It is better to drink water, much better, than bad beer. Now maybe we can vacation together.

veryfrank said...

Yes, seeing the light is so much more preferable than drinking it. Dan's epiphany is further proof that humans can still evolve after the age of 40.