Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Greatest Hits

Nostalgia and New Ideas: Craft Beer Luminaries Find Ways To Stay Relevant

I'm not envious of the youngsters starting out in an era when good beer is available on every street corner.   Yes, things have never been more exciting in US Micro brewing but I feel the grip of  nostalgia.  New breweries are opening almost weekly.  New taprooms draw crowds to taste new, photogenic beers.  Novelty, at times, seems to surpass quality in importance to today's promiscuous drinkers.  Which isn't to say that we didn't get around in my day.  It's just that we didn't make such an effort to make an obvious trail, or tally our conquests.  Which were, admittedly, somewhat smaller in number. 

Might today's craft drinkers missing some great beers from great breweries, in a quest for the next big thing, and a desire to avoid drinking one of dad's many microbrews?  The good news is that many are doing cool things to stay interesting, and remain in conversation.

So many brewing luminaries of my youth are now ancient.  Great Lakes Brewing is 30.  Bel…

Holiday Gift Ideas for The Beer Lover

The gift of beer itself may seem obvious, but it is fraught with pitfalls. Especially if the gift giver is not as knowledgeable, experienced, or perhaps as jaded as the intended recipient. Craft beer lovers tend to have promiscuous taste buds. They crave new and exciting, and occasionally hard to find beers. How can anyone hope to keep track of another person's sense of new. You may have an advantage if you live a few states away and distribution agreements give you unique access to a hot new Nano, or even a New Belgium scale microbrewery. That's a great in if you have a little guidance. A beer lover that's a bit of a hoarder may enjoy an annual gift of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, or Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for their cellar. However, the safest bet for a beer gift is t he somewhat corny Beer of the Month Club.
Has the beer lover on your list has neglected to drop any good hints for gift ideas? Are you looking to surprise? Here are some ideas to consider.

Gi…

Beer Destinations: Prague

Beneath a fairy tale skyline of spires, domes, and towers, a modern city of industry and commerce sits upon cobblestone streets and ancient bridges.Prague is a maddening riddle.Brilliant minds like Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal relied upon surrealistic visions to make sense of it.Despite the city’s complex and frankly tumultuous history, there’s a millennia of brilliantly preserved architecture, miraculously spared the devastation of fire, war, and tasteless modernizations that have continuously reshaped many European cities.

Located between the noble hop fields of Žatec (Saaz in German) and Moravia’s cascading barley fields, Prague is within easy reach of the ingredients to needed to sustain a vital brewing scene. However, the city was not spared the 20th century’s assault on local beer culture.In the early 1990s, international breweries monopolized the city’s tap handles.Brewpubs were mostly forgotten, a novelty for tourists, at best. This Prague earned a reputation for drinking hol…