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Craft Beer Is Telling the Wrong Story

An NPR story went wide today describing how American Small Brewers are chipping away at the market share enjoyed by the country's former big 3 brewers.  It continues to spin the increasingly tired David v. Goliath story that champions the little guys as they struggle against the big business establishment.  Is this narrative still relevant?  Is it even appropriate to reduce trends in the free market to simple, two-sided box scores? If we consider, a completely different perspective, this oversimplifies to a story of punk teenagers mugging elderly billionaires to gather nickels.

The David v. Goliath metaphor is breaking down, and fragmenting the culture of quality beer producers.  The  size mismatch is a key feature of this story.  But it's getting awkward as the early leaders of the craft beer revolution grow to enjoy distribution as wide-spread as their acclaim.  The brewer's association, a trade union representing small brewers, has incited a lot of controversy by defining craft brewers as brewing 6 million barrels a year, or less with less than a 25% ownership interest from big brewing.  America's largest wholly owned brewer, Sam Adams produces nearly 2.5 million a year and could conceivably test that limit soon.  Sierra Nevada and New Belgium aren't far behind, and will certainly grow when they open east coast breweries.  Yes, these companies are still much smaller than the global conglomerates controlling the majority of the grocery store shelf space but the established vanguard of craft brewing has more in common with the multi-nationals than it does the boot-strap start-ups struggling to make names for themselves.

That's not intended to be a criticism of beer quality, or recipe ingenuity.  Or a condemnation of craft brewery's like Goose Island or Kona who opted to pursue acquisition as an exit strategy for investors.  Company size does not correlate to quality (at least not once a company is large enough that it can afford, and sensibly choose to send a bad batch to the drain instead of the kegging line).  Consider the world of ice cream.  Some crazy hippies in Vermont decided to start their own ice cream company.  It frightened the Pillsbury Dough boy.  But after more than 30 years in business, they elected to retire and sold the company to massive multi-national Unilever.  The product quality has remained the same simply because Ben and Jerry's is only valuable as a super-premium brand.  It exists because of a combination of product quality, and social consciousness.   Similarly, the transition of craft breweries into brands within multinational portfolio only makes sense  if the intent is to maintain the "brand" as a super-premium contributor to bottom line growth.

The story behind the distribution of the American craft beer market is a story of changing tastes, not brand marketing.   American cuisine is outgrowing its bland youth. Long term storage and kitchen convienence are no longer the most important attributes for a food stuff.  Quality, flavor, and the sustainability of it's production are key.  Organic food sales are outgrowing other sectors of the food market.  Super premium grocery stores like Whole Foods are growing everywhere.

Craft brewers are simultaneously innovating, and restoring tradition to provide American consumers choice in beverage flavor and quality.

Rooting for one brewer over another is about as sensible as rooting for a gear in your car.  There's a beer for every occasion. It's time for Craft Beer to embrace a narrative celebrating diversity, and the richness of culture.  The David v. Goliath story can only be re-purposed so many times before people start to wonder if Craft Beer has anything to offer beyond another IPA with the distinction of being smaller, and even more local.

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