Earlier this week, my fellow beer reviewer Rod Jones linked an article from the alcohol culture website Vinepair. Now, normally, Vinepair loves their lists, but last Friday, in what was just their second “Craft Beer” post in a month, columnist Kathleen Willcox proclaims that we need to celebrate that great bastion of craft beer culture: national buffalo wing chain Buffalo Wild Wings (which shall be abbreviated “BWW” in this column).
Willcox wants beer nerds across the country to think that “B-Dubs” is going to vast extremes to draw them into their restaurants, proclaiming that, “the bar boasts a sprawling menu of detailed beer choices, which includes the beer’s name, category, and percentage alcohol.” I must be honest: if this is the new wave of Buffalo Wild Wings, it hasn’t hit Columbia, South Carolina yet!
A survey of my local BWW shows your standard selection of macrolagers with a few offerings from the mass producers’ higher end lines or organizations—things like Goose Island IPA, Blue Moon and/or Leinenkugel plus a seasonal, and a Kona or Redhook product. There are also a few of the nationally-distributed ACTUAL craft beers: Samuel Adams, Lagunitas (more on them shortly), and maybe one more, and finally a couple of local notables. In this area, might include ONE ITEM each from Catawba Brewing Company, Highland Brewing Company and Columbia’s own Conquest or River Rat Breweries. I suppose BWW is making an effort, but forgive me if I give them little credit for stocking Kona, Goose Island and other “craft” beers they get off the Budweiser or Coors trucks. At this point, it is also worth remembering that Budweiser is more than willing to openly mock this group of “craft” beers that they want to sell to places like BWW. To Budweiser/A-B InBev, their “High End” group is nothing more than an attempt to recoup market share lost to actual good beer!
And that’s not stunning, given the vast availability of true craft beer, even in a relatively slow-growing craft beer town like Columbia, SC. In fact, within just a few miles of my closest BWW, I can identify multiple bottle shops, bottle bars, and restaurants that are serving high quality craft beer, including a lot of stuff NOT coming off that Budweiser truck! Buffalo Wild Wings claims to want to “[introduce] thousands of Americans who live in rural pockets of the country…to the merits of and differences between, say, fruited sours and bourbon-barrel-aged IPAs”, but they HAVE NOT started doing that yet. I will be happy to change my tune when I see a Westbrook Goze tap at my local restaurant! Until that happens, my local bottle shop will be my destination of choice for a good beer. And, if BWW wants to truly commit to craft beer, they will need to find better partners than Bud and Coors.
Even those attempts to appeal to craft beer drinkers with something special has met with mixed results, at least for THIS craft beer drinker. To their credit, BWW has made strides to pair with breweries to create unique beers for their restaurants. A limited-time collaboration with Redhook was called Game Changer. Now, I may have had it once, and it didn’t really leave an impression on me. But it was obviously successful enough to extend its availability and even create variants of the original. More recently, they teamed with Lagunitas for a hoppy wheat called Fandom Ale. Unfortunately, I found it to be one of the most disappointing craft beer experiences I’ve had in a LONG time. I will mention that I seem to be in the minority, as others, including the previously-mentioned Rod Jones, have had generally positive experiences with the beer. I trust Rod’s judgment, and am completely open to the likelihood that I got a bad keg of the Fandom. Even if that’s the case, delivering and serving great beer is just as important as making great beer in the brewery.
Buffalo Wild Wings IS making some strides to appeal to craft beer drinkers. Without a doubt, there is always something worth drinking. But there aren’t typically a lot of somethings worth drinking, and in that regard, BWW is lapped many times over by venues with far better selections. For us to truly start “[thanking] Buffalo Wild Wings for craft beer”, they must make a much greater commitment to craft beer. There are a number of restaurants which could serve as models—World of Beer or Flying Saucer, in terms of regional chains, though I could name locally-owned restaurants right here in Columbia that could serve as examples of paying due respect to the craft beer world. It’s Buffalo Wild Wings’ choice.