bubbles in my beer, part 2

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.

31 thoughts on “bubbles in my beer, part 2

  1. Nice write up there Dawson. You have outdone yourself here / taken it to a new level. And, this beer nerd salutes you with a soon to be “done” fresh wet hopped harvest ale. (no, I don’t offer this to you or anyone else)

  2. “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.”

    Excellent sentence ending an excellent post.. In the spirit of sharing a thought (more than asking a question…) I have often wondered if the merger of NB and Midwest minimized a culture of beer in favor of the business of beer..

    • I think the reality is you can’t have one without the other; and IMO, retail in general (and homebrewing retail in specific) is another beast entirely: quality of products, price, selection and service are the bottom line – if it weren’t, dudes wouldn’t get buckets at Home Depot or coolers for their MLT builds at Menards. I patronize a few stores nowadays, but I still shop at my local NB.

      Just so it’s said, this post was inspired by things like the one tackled in this writeup – http://chicagoist.com/2012/10/03/the_chicago_beer_festival_and_chick.php
      – not anything else.

      Thanks for the comment, Tom!

  3. Wonderful essay Dawson, and true to your style (sardonic / sarcastic, nerd / geek…whatever. It works and as always is a pleasurable and informative read). My family was at a restaurant in Indianapolis Saturday, where 5 Indiana breweries consumed all 10 available taps. I too think a bit of a shakedown is inevitable in some markets, but we had no trouble finding some standouts amongst the 10 offerings which I suspect will be around for some time. Kind of a good problem to have, will watch with curiosity.

  4. Great post! It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to the craft beer sector over the next few years.

  5. I have mixed emotions about this whole situation as well. I’m living and brewing in Bavaria, where the American Craft Beer Revolution has been largely ignored. Sure, the beer nerds know about it, and you can even find a case of blond ale/IPA/Pale Ale if you know where to look, but the market here is dominated by traditional German breweries and traditional German beers. When I say dominated, it must be something like over 99% traditional beer vs “craft” styles. And I don’t think that’s going to change too much in the future. Why? Because the Germans never had a repressed beer market. The pendulum was never held back, so there was nowhere for it to swing to. In other words, the beer market here is in a long term equilibrium.
    Although it’s fun to come back to the US and see all of the new breweries that have opened, I’m finding myself less and less excited about it. I’m tiring of crazy beers that have been fermented too quickly. I’ve stopped wasting my time with beers that have been infused with 10 different wacky ingredients. After only a few days in the States, I find myself craving the German equilibrium.
    I think that the American beer market will eventually find its own equilibrium. The American equilibrium will likely be hoppier, more ale focused, and generally more “adventurous” than its German counterpart. But it will no longer be striving to be “craft” just for the sake of being “craft”. It’ll be craft without even trying. Someday we’ll all look back at this period of the American beer market and laugh, just like I laugh when I see pictures of what I used to wear in Junior High.
    Keep up the good work Dawson!

    • Thanks, Matt – lots of good stuff in your comment.

      I think you’re totally right about the long-term equilibrium. While there were definitely style changes and disappearances due to World Wars and partition in the 20th century, the German brewing industry never experienced an extinction event like Prohibition. That was less than 100 years ago and totally leveled the American brewing industry, so I think there’s a bit of through-the-looking-glass factor with the current American beer scene … arguably the closest precedent is something like the advent of porter or pilsner in the 18th century (Guinness was a bandwagon-jumper originally, too).

    • Being a chemist by training I’m naturally drawn to Matt’s position on equilibrium and how it relates to German and ultimately American brewing practices. His idea that American craft brewing will someday achieve its own, perhaps hop-centric, equilibrium is really a statement of Le Chatelier’s principle. Prohibition and the subsequent rise of macrolager breweries punctuated an otherwise steady-state in America brewing; rich in history and tradition in its own right. I agree that the boom-bust cycles of micro/craft brewing in the 90’s, and likely the 20teens, is a way American brewing will establish a new equilibrium.
      As always, bravo on your writing, MD. Very insightful, thought-provoking stuff indeed!

  6. Sadly, marketing is part of the program/problem. Will some people buy a beer that tastes bad because others say it is good? Yes, occasionally. I, for one, visited World of Beer Sunday for some Belgian beers. After a flight of really good beers, I had a bottle of DuPont Saison that was poured before me. It was terrible – clearly infected. So, no guarantees exist with beer. One can only hope that nerd or geek, that they are informed and making informed choices. Equilibrium in an economic sense may never be reached, because if the next generation and each after that become consumers based on what they like, rather than what marketing tells them they like, there may be an ever expanding (yet ever micro-sizing) set of choices. There is hope.

    Great essay MD.

  7. Great post! But I I may expand on the subject by posing the question, how does the craft movement move beyond the 10% market share?

    • If there was an easy answer to that question, Boston Brewing would own shares of AB-InBev.

      I think part of the problem is that we set “craft beer” apart from “beer” in the first place. As Matt and Gerald allude in their comments, marketing and the whole “craft vs crafty” play into it. Craft beer could have a bigger market share tomorrow if the definition was relaxed to include, say, Schell’s Brewing Co., which has been family-owned since the mid-1800s and makes traditional (and not so traditional) German beers … plus lagers with adjuncts, which disqualifies them, apparently. So where does one draw the line?

      Another challenge is the concept of a niche or specialty product, which is how craft/microbrews have always been positioned. By committing to produce something that wouldn’t make it past a focus group, a brewer is pretty much saying they’re OK with writing off most of the population in favor of a narrower but more appreciative demographic. I always think of one brewery’s truth-in-advertising on their labels: “You probably won’t like this beer.”

      • I think Schell’s is craft as is SN, BBC, and all of the other larger players. Craft is not a thing of rebellion against light lagers as much as its companies making beer they want to drink, that the public happens to like too (aligning orbits). Perhaps you’re right maybe we need a different word Don’t get me wrong there will always be artisans, and there should be, but look at every other vertical, wine, cheese, bread, coffee. Anecdotally there appears to be much more parody than what exists in the realm of beer. While I don’t think the answer is to go from a choice of 2000 breweries to 3500, I think it’s an evolutionary step in being able to walk into 9 out of ten establishments and have more choice than this fizzy yellow think or that fizzy yellow thing.

      • I’ll still think of Schell’s as “craft” even if that’s wrong. Such a cool brewery (and story behind their work).

  8. Homebrewing raises our standards of taste. Craft brewing has raised our options (it really has gotten ridiculous). As one small consumer, my beer world has gone from all lager all the time to a little bock in the early spring to a full on seasonal rotation. I’ve started my fall brews now as we head into August and I have a new relationship with the seasons. The tastes and smells beer provide pair beautifully with the seasons. The Craft Brewing scene, especially with the boom in tap rooms, will hopefully help create a local feel – though what Minneapolis v. Roseville v. Stillwater can contribute to the culture and identity of their communities remains to be seen. If they can withstand the test of time, and based on the numbers it sounds like quite a test, I think we’ll be back where we belong: this is what we drink here.

  9. Great essay – the big boys will throw stuff at the walls in hopes of it sticking. What they lack is an understanding of what has caused all of this new competition in beer. Sure, not all new breweries will survive but pushing the boundaries of brewing is a good thing. This nerd approves!

  10. Very well said, the same is happening here in Australia, I actually work, as a brewer, for a ‘Contract Brewery’. We have three types of customers;
    – Great craft / Micro breweries that need a helping hand to keep up with demand
    – Business men in suits selling bland Lagers solely based on marketing and
    – ‘Craft Brewing Companies’ that actually own no brewery and many of which have not worked in the brewing industry before.

    The Latter (In my opinion) being the worst. They market their brands as being ‘Craft’, ‘Artisinal’ and ‘Locally brewed’. (when some arent even brewed in the state they claim to be from) I have mixed emotions in my job, I love brewing craft beer from some of my favourite Micros but when I have to brew a beer for a company with no soul it makes it hard to be interested.

  11. Every “craft beer drinker” that Big Beer creates will likely graduate to a “craft” brand owned by one of the giants. Think higher profit margin for a beer that doesn’t cost much more than their crappy light beers. At risk of being called a pessimist, any meaningful growth in the craft beer world will come from the miller/coors/abinbev

  12. Great read Dawson. I for one believe the equilibrium trend Matt described is starting to occur. I have seen a trend toward more sessionable ales and lagers at various brew pubs and tap houses. Those that aren’t distributing, rather making beer for their neighborhood. I believe that is where our “craft” evolution is heading. Yes there will still be distributed craft beer, but the trend will be a small brewery/taphouse/brewpub in major neighborhoods in various cities. These will remain relevant as long as the product is good. One thing I believe is that those in the know on beer, can spot crap beer and will head to the next set of taps. You keep it fresh and flavorful, you’ll have patrons.

  13. As always my man, you drop the knowledge.

    However, let me come at this from another dangle:

    When we start to see some shedding, and we will, that first and largest heep of dead skin will be made up of breweries that can’t pay their rent/mortgage, are buried in debt, and/or can’t pay there bills to their suppliers. Quality of the actual product is not going to factor much into who ultimately lives and who dies. After-all, around 80% of beer sold in America is sub-par lite lager.

    When has quality ever been THE defining factor of capital success?

    Makes a nerd cry.

  14. Mr. Dawson, excellent post! Keep up the good work!

    Despite the goods, the bads, and the uglies of beer, we have never experienced beer like this before. IMO years ago going to buy beer was a five minute deal. All the beer on the shelves was virtually the same, just under different labels. Now going to buy beer or ordering a beer takes time. A few weeks ago when we went to the Happy Gnome and I didn’t know which way to turn. So much beer to choose from and so many decisions to be made…I loved it.

  15. Great post.

    I think the equilibrium will fall out more along the lines that wine has.

    There is the big industrial jug and junk (ripple, wine coolers etc) that are most of the market.

    Then there is a pretty big bunch of large “dependable” wineries that turn out decent to pretty good wines but are not adventurous and tend to be affordable.

    And then you have the fine wine wineries. Some amazing stuff, often $$$, but not always. They don’t make a lot (relatively) but they have a pretty solid market.

    Cheap big beer light lager is not going to lose a majority position. As dawson pointed out “craft” is not well defined. There are a number of larger breweries that don’t only brew a mass marketed light lager. They are the “step up” and I think they will increase a bit as the more successful small breweries scale up.

    The small to tiny breweries and brewpubs though are where many interesting things are happening. Many don’t have any (or just a couple) of house brews that you can get every time. Consistency doesn’t mean much if you don’t brew something constantly. Other than location and some sense of how to run a business this is the category that lives and dies on quality. And variety. This category could grow a LOT and still not make a dent on the over all % because they are individually so small.

    There is a guy here in Detroit that is starting a brewery with a 15gal system. He will never (probably) even get to the higher side of this category. But he may well survive. He’s in a good location and property is cheap. There was a time (and not that long ago in europe) where there were a few breweries per town and pretty much all they sold was to that town. I’m seeing a lot of that small specific kinds of operations popping up around here. It’s a trend but who knows how long it will continue. But it’s linked to the “food movement” and that has been steadily gaining ground since the mid 60’s so there is hope that this will continue for some time.

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