Citizens, in the last several months your author has seen a number of stories about new, contract-brewed brands built almost purely around a marketing concept or narrow demographic target that seem to be, to put it as objectively as possible, all hat and no cattle. What a lot of folks in the fall of 2012 might have considered “getting into brewing for the wrong reasons.”
My knee jerk reaction was uncharitable and unfavorable. Deep, internet forum-grade butthurt, scandalized like a Victorian lady. My second, more considered line of inquiry was to dig a little deeper. Join me in examining my feelings.
I’m not naming names – you can find these same stories online and draw your own conclusions from the source material. And let it be said that I fully recognize that this sort of bandwagon cash grab is normal for a booming industry like this; it happened before in the 90s. These brands have a lifespan only as long as craft beer stays trendy and high in the national consciousness and media rotation. In a lot of ways, they’re harmless – I’ll qualify that, but first I need to make a distinction.
One evening many years ago, a buddy and I embarked on a beer-fueled taxonomic debate: nerd vs. geek. Our definitions shook out like this: while both are socially-compromised enthusiasts who can and will go on about their obsession well past the point of a layperson’s attention span, a nerd is an enthusiast who at the end of the day doesn’t give a rip whether or not anybody else cares about what he cares about. The nerd is prone to hermitage. The nerd doesn’t need you to be interested. A geek, on the other hand, is vocally obsessive; a geek is a proselytizer – a geek wants you to be a geek along with him. There’s a requirement of communion for geekhood that’s absent from nerds.
To return to my point: the beer nerds – the lifer aficionados, the ones who would run back into a burning house for a vintage bottle of Cantillon (a beer geek would want to do that too, but be too busy telling the fire department all about it) – those folks will still be here. They’ll still be drinking craft (or micro, or whatever we call it next time) even after it’s not cool anymore.
I freely admit I put beer – artisanal, independently produced, traditional, carrying the weight of history, etc. etc. – on a pedestal. As a consumer I have a very different perception of a beer that’s brewed and fermented in-house. “Why the romanticization?” I asked myself. Every brewery is at heart a food manufacturing plant; any beer is at the root just a perishable, consumable liquid commodity.
Plus: not all beer that falls under the moving-target definition of “craft” is inherently good – not all beer that falls outside it is bad. I’ve quoted this same passage on this blog before, but dammit, it’s so apt. Here, once again ladies and gentlemen, comes Dana Gioia:
… well-intentioned regional literati usually practice boosterism–the uncritical praise of all things local. Boosterism is not merely a poor substitute for arts criticism; it is its opposite, a slow poison to native excellence.
And, to fully put credit where credit is due – in the frosted TGI Fridays pint glasses of the folks buying it – your friend and mine, Mike “Tasty” McDole recently had this to say:
The influx of new craft beer drinkers along with the rotating taps model has been a huge break for breweries making below average beer.
I’ll wager these new, contract-brewed brands will taste perfectly competent. To say they’ll have a better chance at consistency than the output from any random sampling of the 1500 breweries currently in planning in the US is probably a safe bet too – smaller breweries don’t tend to have the QC protocols or sheer expertise of a larger contract facility. Competent is good, consistency is great, bad beer is bad beer no matter who brewed it.
But push comes to shove, I’m more interested in trying something from a small brewer that may have something to say with his or her beer – or at least going back to a larger, established outfit that can trump competence with quality and still deliver on consistency and cost – than one whose concept started with a demographic gimmick instead of a target flavor profile or with basis in a classic style.
And that’s why I think entries into the market like these are “in a lot of ways” harmless, maybe not entirely harmless. In a Time article this week on the possible oversaturation of the craft beer market, despite the rah-rah about space for growth and the natural selection of market forces and competition improving beer quality, there’s a three-sentence reality check:
New brewers complain about the difficulty of getting their beers on tap at restaurants and bars. There’s only so much room at the bar, after all, and restaurants are in a position where they can be picky. “We don’t want to put five Indianapolis breweries on that have the same types of beer,” said the owner of one pub.
Craft beer sales are right around 10% of total beer sales in the US, split 2300 ways, with a lot more on the way. On paper it doesn’t look very sustainable, and outfits that clearly aren’t in it for the long haul aren’t helping.
There’s the business of beer, and then there’s the culture of beer that I came to and that I still believe in, and they’re not the same thing but it’s nice when their orbits line up for a while.
Scandalized Victorian Lady signing off. I’m going to go have a homebrew.