Friday, January 13, 2012

A Plea for Genesee

When was the last time you strolled into a Buffalo bar, surveyed the bottle display and said, “Boy, could I go for a Genny now"?

Judging by the lack of local advertising and brand-hoisting, it wasn’t recently. Many younger Western New Yorkers’ tales featuring the Genesee's white cans or infamous Cream Ale “green screamers” vary from hilariously cataclysmic to gastronomically regretful, void of the Beer Advocate-like technical prose that accompanies nights of Great Lakes or Southern Tier pints. Settings for nights of blue-canned Genny Light have been known to include a Hamburg playground picnic table or South Buffalo golf course, places adequately suited to host a chill of empty cans surrounding one’s Chuck Taylors or Timberlands. It’s a regrettable local image attached to our most affordable and maligned canned beer, and it’s an image that we need to move past. One reason for this need?

Because Genesee is primed to pass Pabst Blue Ribbon as the coolest beer in America.

If you’ve walked into a dive bar or rock club across the country over the last 10 years, you've probably noticed that beers once considered avoidable have gone from a poor man’s necessity to a hipster’s accessory. With the help of The Strokes, beards in Williamsburg, and a renewed interest in our country’s once frightening dive bars, PBR went from a beer you stole from your grandfather to swill cherished by Grizzly Bear fans. The Boston, Massachusetts-based Paradise Rock Club—which boasts the first American club appearance by U2 in 1980—usually goes through over 100 cases of 16-ounce Pabst per week. And, when they run out, their clientele usually switch over to regional canned favorite, Narragansett.

A piece of Genesee's genius advertising

Why does The Paradise blow through beers once exclusively sipped by longshoremen, steel workers and the reclining elderly? Is it because they taste delicious? God, no. Is it because they’re four dollars-a-pop? Not really; there are plenty of beers inside the Paradise that retail for the same price. According to club general manager Bill Guerra, it’s a combination of two factors.           

“It may have coincided with the mass migration into once-blue collar (drinking) establishments,” said Guerra, whose joint usually hosts five to six shows-a-week. “These were places where, at one time, five bucks got you a shot and a beer. Ordering crappy beers just made good economic sense. But, sooner or later, the Lemming effect took hold. Now, it's just cool to drink things like Jack (Daniels) and PBR, regardless of cost.”

Tight t-shirts. American Spirits. Mustaches. Not eating. Many things have become standard fare for the up-and-coming hipster, and the drink in their hand is essential. Does it taste like foam simmering in an engineer boot? Doesn’t matter; the label on the can or bottles emits style and attitude. According to Paradise senior bartender Danielle Benson, that label is a flag every fledgling cool dude needs to fly.

“Beer is very important to a scenester’s image,” said the heavily tattooed Benson, who pledges allegiance to Miller High Life. “It's a way for them to relate and recognize each other. PBR screams, ‘Hi! I like sh***y beer and wearing thrift store clothes resold to Urban Outfitters, too!’ It's a way to show people how hip you are—even if you hate the beer.”

But how much longer can Pabst’s run of cool continue? Its new Hummer-driving ownership has vowed to capitalize on their image, with innovative marketing and flashier exposure—and hipsters hate flashy exposure. Before long, their culture could rise up against such mainstream advances and turn away from PBR the same way they disowned the Kings of Leon. In some of the same New York bars Pabst enjoyed its style resurgence, bespectacled youth have already started to react to these developments (and higher prices on PBR) by shifting their loyalties. Their new barstool standard?

The one and only Genesee.

And this is how restoration of a brand begins. For dudes in skinny jeans and floppy knit tuques at Brooklyn holes like the Pit Stop Bar and Mission Dolores, Genny Cream Ale is their new, working class throwback. But, for certain sects of Buffalonians and Rochesterians, it will always be the warm beer you pounded while shivering inside your friend’s Chevy Reliant. According to former South Buffalo resident and current filmmaker Kevin Meegan, no trend or scene is ever going to change this historical depiction.

“No way,” said Meegan, who now owns and operates Rust Belt Productions outside New York City. “I don’t think Buffalonians are into fad drinking or changing their brand to suit what’s cool. Cream Ale will always be what your dad drank before anyone knew any better.” 

Sure, some locals will always describe Genesee’s fleet of gas station-case beers as concoctions of river water, foot sweat and grass clippings. This is an unfair stigma attached to a brand that's won multiple Great American Beer Festival gold medals; an unflattering characterization attached by a populace who've progressed to fare from the Ellicottville Brewing Company, Saranac or even Genny’s North American Breweries brethren, Labatt. But, in the wake of Genesee’s ascent from the forgotten to dive bar favorite, maybe its time for a new generation of local minimalist drinkers to reevaluate and rediscover the majesty of the High Fall’s finest creation.

With a glance, you might just see an alignment between the gritty, overlooked brand and its Western New York surroundings. As of 2010, Genesee was quietly the eighth largest brewing company in America by sales volume. With parent company North American Breweries, they’re revamping their century-old Rochester facilities into a tourist-attracting brew house and pumping millions into regional marketing (to hopefully produce more ads like these). It’s attempting to resuscitate a swagger while paying homage to its history—just like its host community of Rochester and drinking neighbor Buffalo are trying to do.

You might appreciate its role as our region’s bare-bones, neighborhood beer and honor it the way Chicago claims Old Style and Baltimore boasts National Bohemian. Both of those areas have an abundance of microbrews and craft beers, just as Buffalo and Rochester do. But, if they want to showcase a beer inside Wrigley Field or Delores’s Bar on The Wire, they go with their canned classics. We have Genesee. North American Breweries has blanketed Buffalo with Labatt advertising, so why can’t its other local brand be brought into the exposure fold? Along with a revamped local ad campaign, 12-Horse and Cream ales could be made more accessible and encouraged in places like Coca Cola Field, Ralph Wilson Stadium, First Niagara Center, and at the window of Clinton’s Dish on Canalside. Considering Senator Chuck Schumer’s recently announced, “I Love NY Brew” campaign, this development might even be encouraged by state government.

Finally, maybe you just want to be associated with Genesee’s burgeoning sense of understated cool in places as close as Allentown and as far away as Portland, Oregon. Maybe you want to start a trend with flannelled masses and hold a beer that adds to your ever-evolving image. Maybe you want to hoist a Western New York-brewed tallboy inside Mohawk Place or Water Street Music Hall as some animal-named act or Mac-infused band creates squealing noise they consider music. Who cares? It’s your local swill, so do with it what you choose. 

And, with one smooth sip, you might realize its not nearly as bad as you’ve heard it is—or remember it to be. You’ll eventually find your way to the bottom, then shake the foam remnants at the base of the can. When the bartender finds you waiting and ready, he’ll give you a nod. For whatever reason, whether it be aesthetic aspirations or local loyalty, you'll know what to order. You can now look back at that bartender and simply say the following:

“Give me a Genesee.”

Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to Common's "The Food."

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