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Point of Brew: Lessons for Picnic Day from Joseph Schlitz

By April 26, 2011

Many years ago, I was a technical consultant for the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. They were, at the time, among the biggest brewing companies in the world, but they were facing stiff competition in a changing beer climate in which low-calorie beers were making in-roads. Schlitz was late to that game.

I was such an exemplary consultant and adviser that they went out of business shortly after my contract ended while still making (and presumably selling) some enormous amount of beer, perhaps 12 million barrels or so.

The reason for this was that, to regain profitability, they threw technical caution to the winds and started to use new technology to shorten and cheapen the process. For example, they were among the first to adopt high-gravity brewing.

In this scheme, the materials are much more concentrated than usual and a concentrated beer of say 6 percent or even 8 percent results; the beer is then diluted to 4 percent or 5 percent alcohol right at the end of the process. In this way, a brewer can make much more beer without expanding size of the plant. This practice is commonplace, indeed usual, these days, but in those earlier times it was not so obvious how to do it successfully.

Schlitz also played with the fermentation itself and used higher fermentation temperatures than other lager brewers, and stirred the vessels in an attempt to do continuous fermentation; this made the fermentation much faster and again gave a free increase in plant capacity. Finally, they changed the grain formula and started to use quite a bit of barley instead of malt to lower the cost of the raw materials.

All these changes were made over a quite short period of time in the early 1970s and, inevitably, Schlitz began to make beer that tasted odd. It was grainy, astringent, bitter and once in a while went hazy and easily lost fresh flavor.Predictably, sales began to falter.

I recall one national gathering of brewers at which the only beer remaining at any session was Schlitz; embarrassingly, not one of the professionals there would drink it.

The solution, of course, was to invest enormous sums in advertising! That could have been the famous “Go for the Gusto!” adverts you might remember from this era. But successful advertising merely served to draw a lot more people to that inferior product who, it turned out, still didn’t like the beer. Sales dropped further.

So, we might conclude that, in general, it’s not a good idea to promote something that blackens one’s name.

And that brings me to Picnic Day.

I have been very fond of Picnic Day since I first heard of it as we drove into California on Highway 40 (now “historic”) on April 12, 1962, to begin our lives in this town. I have attended many more Picnic Days than I have missed in the ensuing years and enjoyed even the memorable ones that were rained upon.

I started with my own children on my shoulders at the parade and ended up with my grandchildren riding there.

Any event that brings so many ordinary folk to the campus and exposes them so happily and intelligently to who we are, what we do and how and why we do it, has to be a treasured thing. For the almost five decades over which I have enjoyed Picnic Day, I think the event has more than earned its keep as the human and public face of UCD (and even of the University of California).

But in 2010, Picnic Day gave us a black eye.

In 2011, our town turned into a gulag; any event that requires such an overwhelming police presence to preserve order and protect public safety has lost its way and outlived or outgrown its usefulness, or, one might say, it has been destroyed by its own success.

I recall that at one time there was a track meet associated with Picnic Day. That got out of hand and was abandoned. At one time, perhaps at Homecoming, there was a gigantic bonfire on campus; that got out of hand and was abandoned.

Now, if truth be told, Picnic Day has got out of hand and needs to be abandoned. This might be an ordinary part of an inevitable cycle for happenings of this sort.

Jos. Schlitz Brewong Co. lost control of their beer, advertised it and lost the company. UCD has lost control of Picnic Day and promoting it can only diminish the campus. Time to move on.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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